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July 11, 2014

Shift from jets to intelligence

60 years later, 181st Wing’s role has changed, presence still needed

TERRE HAUTE — Loud, impressive fighter jets once zoomed regularly across the sky in Terre Haute, their roars drowning out the sounds of televisions and telephones all around the area.

There was a keen beauty in those shining jets, often soaring in pairs with milky white vapor tails trailing behind them.

The jets are gone, but the mission continues, albeit much more quietly, and, this weekend, the 181st Intelligence Wing is celebrating 60 years in Terre Haute.

The 181st’s mission these days is high-tech intelligence gathering. Their work is generally top secret, but involves monitoring real-time data from unmanned flying vehicles and advising ground commanders in the national war on terrorism.

Fighter jets are no longer part of the package, but the work of the 181st is perhaps even more important today than it has ever been in the past, said Lt. Col. Frank Howard of the Intelligence Wing.

Howard was at the air guard base Friday along with dozens of others as part of a multi-day celebration of the 60th anniversary of the guard base, which moved to Hulman Field in 1954. In its national security mission, the base works closely with civilian institutions in Vigo County.

“They’ve been a great host to us,” said Keith Holbert, deputy director of the Vigo County Emergency Management Agency, which has its offices at the guard base. Being close to the 181st cuts emergency response time in about half for some situations, Holbert said.

Last January, winter storms provided the most recent opportunity for EMA-181st cooperation in dealing with a crisis, Holbert said. The 181st provided vehicles that could force their way through snows that other vehicles could not, he said.

Indiana State University also benefits greatly from its close cooperation with the 181st, said Richard Baker, director of ISU’s center for unmanned systems and human capital development. Several ISU students serve at the guard base, said Baker, himself a former fighter pilot with the 181st.

“ISU works very closely with the 181st Intelligence Wing,” Baker said.

Indiana State University currently has a minor program in unmanned systems and expects to launch a full bachelor’s degree program soon, Baker said. This comes at a time when unmanned systems are finding a multitude of new uses, including package deliveries in Europe, agriculture, disaster response and military uses, he said.

“This stuff is really happening,” Baker said.

Today, the 181st is celebrating again by holding a special gathering for dignitaries, retirees and others, Howard said. There will be several people at today’s celebration who were part of the original move to Terre Haute in 1954, he said.

Later this year, the United Services Organization is also hoping to make inroads in the Wabash Valley, said Charles Ridings, executive director of the USO in Indiana, who was at the base Friday. The organization perhaps best known for Bob Hope shows during past wars, works hard to lift the spirits of U.S. service men and women today, Ridings said. The organization is a not-for-profit entity in Indiana and will soon be looking for volunteers in the Terre Haute area, he said.

“The main thing we need is volunteers,” Ridings said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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