One last landing

Freedom New Mexico: Liliana Castillo Col. Valentino Bagnani, left, and Col. Tod Fingal furl the 522nd Fighter Squadron’s colors after the squadron’s final flight over Cannon Air Force Base Friday.

By Tonya Fennell

A single jet made two sweeping passes Friday afternoon over Cannon Air Force Base. As the F-16 roared overhead, spectators craned their necks to witness the final F-16 flight at the base.

The aerial display marked the end of an era for the 522nd Fighter Squadron, also known as the Fireballs, as well.

The squadron was the third and final fighter squadron to be inactivated at the base as part of the transition from Air Combat Command base to Air Force Special Operations Command, which took ownership Oct. 1.

According to www.globalsecurity.org, the 522nd’s primary mission was to maintain the continuous ability to rapidly deploy and support unified commanders worldwide with day or night F-16 combat operations.

As the F-16 rolled to a stop on the flightline, the pilot, Maj. Bob Battema, turned to the crowd, smiled, and lifted his hands to the back of his head, fingers wiggling. The signature hand signal, which represents a fireball, was returned by Battema’s fellow squadron members.

As Battema, the 522nd operations officer, descended from the cockpit he was met with applause and a grasping, two-handed handshake from 27th Special Operations Commander Col. Timothy Leahy. “Congratulations,” Leahy said with a wide smile.

Battema said it was a privilege to be part of the final flight.

“This is a great moment, but it is not bittersweet at all,” Battema said. “This is just one proud moment in the Fireball’s history.”

Col. Tod Fingal, 522nd commander, said the final flight was bitter and sweet.

“The bitter part is leaving behind a great community,” Fingal said. “But it is sweet because it enables the Air Force to meet the changing threat environment.”

Following the final flight, the squadron’s guidon, or colors, were furled. According to Air Force officials, this act is the final symbol of closure for squadron member’s past and present.

Col. Valentino Bagnani, vice commander of the 27th Special Operations Wing, ended the ceremony with a final salute.

“First in,” Bagnani said as he stepped away from the podium.

“Last out,” answered the Fireballs in unison.

The new Special Ops squadron members began trickling into the base in November. The first squadron, the 73rd, includes 150 personnel and four MC-130Ws. According to AFSOC officials, the first squadron is expected to be at full strength by February. The growing 73rd Squadron is expected to reach 12 aircraft by 2009, she said.

A squadron of MQ-1B Predators are slated to follow, but firm dates have not been nailed down.