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History Made as JSTARS Completes Final Operational Sortie

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Marissa Welker
  • 116th Air Control Wing

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- In the twilight of its twenty one years of service, the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft embarked on its final operational mission, Sep. 21, 2023, marking the end of an era in airborne command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The crew, a seasoned group of dedicated Airmen, gathered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, their faces a mix of nostalgia and determination.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Col. Christopher Dunlap, commander, 116th Air Control Wing. “I’ve been flying this mission on this aircraft since the spring of 2003. There’s been a lot of changes over the years.”

On the cloudy morning of the final mission, the aircraft taxied onto the runway - engines roaring to life as if raring to accomplish its task ahead.

Aircraft maintainers somberly observed from the flightline as the aircraft gracefully ascended into the sky, headed towards its final mission location. Many of them observing this final moment, a symbolic representation of the culmination of their careers.

As it ascended into the sky, the crew's minds raced with memories of countless missions, their roles crucial in ensuring the safety and security of troops on the ground.

As they neared towards their targeted location, their objective was familiar. The JSTARS' radar systems scanned the terrain below, mapping movements and identifying potential targets, a testament to its unparalleled capabilities.

“We’ve been around the globe, and we’ve supported almost every major contingency since the [Air National] Guard became part of this mission set,” said Dunlap.

Hours passed, and the crew executed their duties with precision, a culmination of years of training and experience.

The aircraft's sensors provided invaluable intelligence, guiding strategic decisions on the ground and enhancing operational effectiveness.

The JSTARS aircraft made its descent, returning to Ramstein Air Base for the last time. As usual, the mission was a success, a fitting farewell to a faithful guardian of the skies.

“I was raised here,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Banks, deputy commander, 116th Operations Group. “I was taught here. I grew here. I got experience here. So, I’m very thankful and grateful to be a part of the last mission.”

The crew disembarked, their faces now marked with a sense of closure and pride, grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside this remarkable aircraft.

“When I land back at Robins, it’ll be sentimental,” said Banks. “It’ll be emotional. It’ll be culminating of a career.”

Since 2002, the JSTARS fleet has accomplished 14,259 operational sorties for 141,169 flying hours in support of every combatant command.

The E-8C JSTARS has left an enduring mark on the archives of aviation, a chapter that would be remembered and celebrated for years to come. Its legacy will live on in the memories of those who had flown aboard the aircraft, those who maintained it, and the countless lives it had protected on the battlefield.

Banks wanted to thank both the active duty side of the Joint STARS mission as well as the Air National Guard side. He was part of the blending of the units in 2001, making it the first total force integrated organization. Banks served with the 461st Air Control Wing for 12 years before transitioning to the 116th Air Control Wing with the Air National Guard.

“I’ve seen both worlds,” said Banks. “They’re both responsible for the product that I am today in JSTARS. I just want to show my gratitude to both sides, the active house and the Guard house.”

There are two of 17 aircraft that currently remain in the fleet at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.

“So, sad day, the last operational recovery for aircraft 9111, the mission is now complete,” said Dunlap. “However, in the same sense, if you think about what’s going on in the world – it’s also a good day because the 116th will remain in the fight and be the ‘tip of the spear’.”