By Brian Livingston
At the beginning of his flying career, Mike Nabors thought he would do a few years with the 186th Air Refueling Wing and then fly to another unit or assignment.
Nabors said Tuesday during a luncheon with members of the Meridian Optimist Club that what he saw at Key Field convinced him to stay here.
"It was the people," said Nabors, who took over command of the wing in December of last year from Col. Franklin Chalk. "The leaders we have here at Key Field are some of the finest I've ever come across. That is why I stayed. It was because of the people."
Nabors started his military flying career 31 years ago at Columbus Air Force Base. He stayed on as an instructor and for 10 years he devoted his flying time to training some of the best in the USAF. A Brandon native, Nabors came to Meridian with the 186th ARW and for the past 21 years has flown mainly the KC-135 Stratotanker.
Now as the commander of the wing, Nabors is on another mission. He wants the people in Meridian, Lauderdale County and eastern Mississippi to understand the caliber of airmen that serves their country with the Mississippi Air National Guard.
"Throughout the history of Key Field there have been about 28 different aircraft in several different variations that have flown out of this field," Nabors said. "At first the air missions were reconnaissance in nature but in 1992 we got the mission in which the Key Brothers were pioneers, air refueling."
Nabors said the spirit of aviation and patriotism throughout all those years has not diminished. In fact, it is at a higher level today than ever before.
Nabors noted that in the most recent past, the 186th has had to endure many changes in missions. After enjoying the refueling mission for 19 years the tankers were flown out of Key Field. They were replaced with other flying missions. These missions, in retrospect, proved to the brass with the USAF the airmen of the 186th ARW could do anything asked of them. It was during this trying time Nabors firmly believes the airman at Key Field cemented their reputation as a top unit in the nation's air force.
"A defining moment came when we were offered the MC-12W Project Liberty mission," Nabors said. "There are still aspects of this mission I can't talk about because of the secrecy of the missions and systems. But what I can tell you is that this mission, solely handed to us to build from the ground up, was put into action, developed, tested, and proven effective by the men and women on this field."
Nabors said the training manual had to be written from scratch. The highly classified systems on the converted, dual turbo prop engine Beechcraft platform, had to be checked for their capabilities. The mission parameters and tactics had to be developed and smoothed out. Then, the crews had to be trained. All of this was done at Key Field by the men and women of the 186th ARW.
"The Air Force didn't think we could do it," Nabors said. "This was a huge mission. We started turning out trained crews who left Meridian and went straight to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Needless to say the mission was a resounding success. Nabors said the MC-12 crews were instrumental in interdicting or the capture of more than 12,000 of the enemy while in theater. He said the number of lives saved with American and other allied ground forces is incalculable.
As a result of the work the 186th ARW did with the Project Liberty program, Nabors said it was nominated for the prestigious Collier Award, given each year to the unit that makes the largest contribution to manned flight.
The 186th ARW finished runner-up to the International Space Station.
The MC-12W program is currently at Beale AFB in California. There are now eight KC-135s sitting on the tarmac of the G. V. "Sonny" Montgomery National Guard Complex which takes up a large part of Key Field. Nabors hopes the refueling mission continues to fly out of Meridian for a very long time.
"We have some units that are losing their aircraft. There are some Army units that will have to be trimmed down according to recent force reduction mandates. But I don't see us here with the Air National Guard being impacted that much. I can see us with this important flying mission for the next decade," Nabors said.
In the meantime, the newest tanker for the Air Force, the KC-46, is continuing to go through testing in hopes of hitting the flight lines in the very near future. Nabors hopes a few of those find a nest in Meridian.
"This is a completely new aircraft," Nabors said. "The 135 has been in service since the 50s. We are currently on block 40 with the 135 which means it has undergone 40 major upgrades since it came into service."
Nabors admitted what the 186th ARW has done over the decades and the service it continues to give to America is not as well known locally as he would like. He said the 186th ARW has to change with the times, take advantage of social media in order to reach the younger men and women who could continue the excellent service record of the wing. He said it is a challenge the 186th ARW is ready to tackle.
"We have taken blow after blow and come out on top every time," Nabors said. "I'm proud to wear this uniform and fly out of Meridian. Our future is with the young men and women who want some adventure and who don't mind being challenged in the process. We are always looking for the next pioneers, like the Key Brothers, who make their mark with the 186th and take the wing to new heights."
Nabors admitted that is a tall order, given the stellar achievements the wing has attained over the years. But he is confident the younger generation can reach higher and soar farther than their predecessors.