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Back with a Bang: Vermont F-35s to the Forefront at William Tell

  • Published
  • By Mr. Dan DiPietro
  • 158th Fighter Wing

SAVANNAH, Ga. — After nearly two decades, the skies over Savannah once again roared with the sound of competitive spirit as the Air Force's historic William Tell Air-to-Air Weapons Meet made its triumphant return. Hosted at the Air Dominance Center from Sept. 11-15, 2023, this event showcased the prowess of the Air Force's finest, with a special spotlight on the 158th Fighter Wing.

The William Tell meet, which began in 1954, was paused in 2004 for 19 years due to the military's operational tempo and contingency requirements, according to Air Combat Command. But the world of aerial combat didn't stand still as during the hiatus, the Air Force expanded its fleet, introducing 5th generation aircraft with the F-35 Lightning II being the newest model.

Vermont has a storied history with the William Tell competition, having clinched third place back in October 1972 with the 134th Fighter Squadron. Fast forward to October of 1994, they performed flawlessly, marking the first perfect score in the competition's 40-year history. Not only did they excel in the skies, but their ability on the ground was also evident as they secured first place in the Maintenance Team Competition. Overall, Vermont secured a commendable third place, a testament to their dedication and skill.

This year, the 158th Fighter Wing stood out again, earning the title for the Top F-35 Wing. Individual accolades were also in order:

The top F-35 Pilot was Capt. Roberto Mercado, 134th Fighter Squadron, showcased exceptional skill and precision, earning the title amidst fierce competition.

The top F-35 Maintainer was Airman 1st Class Gordon King, from low observable in the 158th Maintenance Group, proved that maintaining these state-of-the-art machines requires a blend of expertise and dedication.

The top F-35 Weapons Load Crew was Master Sgt. John Cassidy, Tech. Sgt. Travis Welton, and Staff Sgt. Caleb Machia, from the weapons squadron in the 158th Maintenance Group, demonstrated seamless teamwork and efficiency, earning them the top spot.

"The performance of the 158th Fighter Wing Airmen has been nothing short of exemplary," said Col. Brian Lepine, 158th Vice Wing Commander. "Competing in such a challenging environment and emerging on top is a testament to their dedication, training and the spirit of excellence we foster in Vermont."

The William Tell Air-to-Air Weapons Meet serves as a demonstration to the Air Force's commitment to excellence, training and readiness. As the event concludes, it leaves behind not just memories of a competition but a legacy of dedication, skill, and the relentless pursuit of aerial dominance.

Lt. Col. James Philbrook, project officer for the Vermont William Tell team, remarked, "Seeing our Airmen in action, their camaraderie and their determination was truly inspiring. They've not only upheld the legacy of past participants but have set new benchmarks for future competitions."