Insignia Tells The Story of 171st ARS

  • Published
  • By TSgt. Dan Heaton
  • 127th Wing Public Affairs
Long known as the "Michigan Six Pack," the 171st Air Refueling Squadron flies the KC-135T Stratotanker and is located at Selfridge Air National Guard Base as part of the Michigan Air National Guard.

Saluting the squadron's proud heritage, as well the squadron's service to state and nation, a number of distinctive logos, emblems and other marks are evident on both the aircraft and on the flight suits of the flying personnel assign to it.

Since the earliest days of military aviation, insignia has graced the outer skins of U.S. aircraft. Those insignias are also worn as patches on the uniforms of many of the Airmen who fly, maintain and otherwise support the operation of those aircraft. Over the years, the use of patches on Air Force uniforms has waxed and waned. Currently, only those personnel who wear military flight suits are authorized to wear unit patches.

Prominent on the 171st emblem is the profile of an Aztec high priest in traditional feathered head dress and a lightning bolt over a blue background. According to the official record of the emblem maintained by the Air Force Historical Research Agency:

"Blue alludes to the sky, the primary theater of Air Force operations. Yellow refers to the sun and the excellence required of Air Force personnel. This emblem has been in existence in various forms since World War II. It was created by members of the 361st Fighter Group while traveling from Virginia to Shanks, NY to report for duty. It began with an idea gleaned from symbols viewed during the trip which were drawn into a concept and finalized upon arrival in New York. The emblem of the 361st Group was used as the template for all four units in the Michigan Air National Guard. The Aztec Indian head represents Michigan's long-standing heritage, and the lightning bolt signifies the unit's willingness to act at a moment's notice in support of community and country. The emblem is historic and epitomizes triumph, courage, duty, and strength by all who have and will bear this patch."

New logos have been added to the aircraft of the 171st ARS over the past year, most notably a checkerboard stripe along the center of the main body of the aircraft. The checkerboard has been part of aircraft markings for the 171st since at least 1972, when the squadron was designated as a fighter-interceptor squadron and was flying the F-106 Delta Dart, from which the squadron also first acquired the name "Michigan Six Pack." Both the checkerboard and the "Six Pack" name have been in use ever since. Two other markings on the aircraft also directly indicate that its home base is in Michigan. The name of the state is written on the tail and a silhouette of the state, with the names of the maintenance crew chiefs written inside the silhouette. The crew chiefs hail from the 191st Maintenance Squadron and 191st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, both of which have been maintaining 17st aircraft for more than 40 years.

The crest of the 127th Wing rests on the checkerboard stripe on the aircraft. The 171st is a component of the 127th Wing as a result of a 1996 consolidation of the former 191st Airlift Group and the 127th Tactical Fighter Wing into a single wing.

The 171st began life as the 374th Fighter Squadron, flying the P-47 Thunderbolt in Europe during World War II. After the war, in 1946, the squadron was redesignated as the 171st and was assigned to the Michigan Air National Guard. It continued to operate as a fighter squadron until 1958 when it was designated as a reconnaissance squadron. In 1972, it returned to fighter duty. In 1994, the squadron was designated as an airlift squadron and began flying the C-130 Hercules. The 171st maintained that mission until 2008, when it was assigned as a refueling squadron flying the KC-135. Many of the various types of aircraft flown by the 171st over the years are now on display in the air park of the Selfridge Military and Air Museum.

The use of military insignia dates back to the 12th century when helmeted knights adopted the use of insignias and banners so that their comrades in arms would recognize them, despite the fact that the knight's face was covered with a shield. During the Revolutionary War, General Washington authorized the use of insignia to distinguish various ranks among the troops and also authorized the wearing of a purple heart made of cloth on a uniform, to signify those who had been injured in combat. Insignia has been used in the U.S. ever since.

On May 6, 1918, during World War I, then-Capt. Benjamin Foulois established the policy for insignia of aerial units, declaring that each squadron would have an official insignia painted on the middle of each side of the airplane fuselage. Foulois, who would later rise to become chief of the Air Service in the U.S. Army, ordered that "the squadron will design their own insignia during the period of organizational training. The design must be submitted to the Chief of Air Service, AEF, for approval. The design should be simple enough to be recognizable from a distance."

The distinctive checkerboard and other markings of the 171st clearly live up to the spirit of the rule first handed down by Foulois almost a century ago.

Comprised of approximately 1,600 personnel and flying both the A-10 Thunderbolt II and the KC-135 Stratotanker, the 127th Wing supports Air Mobility Command, Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operation Command by providing highly-skilled Airmen to missions domestically and overseas. The 127th Wing is the host unit at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, which marked its 95th year of continuous military air operations in 2012.