Throughout history, we as human beings tend to celebrate that which endures or rises from tragedy. Be it heartwarming tales of sickly children growing up to be Rough Ridin’ Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, stray dogs finding new homes or The Little Engine That Could, humanity loves a heart-warming underdog story.
On the opposite side of that coin, people also like to tell tales of Mother Nature’s fury, the only foe which cannot be stopped by weapon or will. From the volcanoes of Pompeii, the Great Flood of Biblical times or tales of a tornado that throws cattle and homes for miles in each direction, man has a healthy respect for that which he is unable to control.
The story you’re about to read, however, is a little bit of both. This is the the story of Hurricane Andrew -one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever exist- and a 28-year-old fighter jet that stood in its way and faced certain destruction.
In August of 1992, the state of Florida was in, well, a state of panic. Off its southern coast, a Category 5 hurricane by the name of Andrew was barreling down on the peninsula at wind speeds up to 175 MPH, the storm was nothing to scoff at, and threatened to forever alter the state.
In the path of Andrew was Homestead Air Force Base, a fighter base that was home to the 482nd Fighter Wing, as well as the 31st Fighter Wing’s 307th Tactical Fighter Squadron, AKA the “Stingers.”
Deactivated in 1989, the 307th had only been stood up again at Homestead the year before, with pilots almost finished with their training cycle when Hurricane Andrew began to approach.
Enter the story of #88-0465, a Block 40 F-16C “Viper” on the ground at Homestead when zero hour approached. Born in the opening days of 1990, the aircraft had previously belonged to the 421st TFS and was even a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm, where F-16s saw considerable action.
Assigned to Homestead in February, “465” was a relatively new kid on the block at the Florida airbase, and was assigned to the 307th, complete with the red “Stingers” livery on her tail fin.
With Andrew pushing in, many aircraft were forced to evacuate from Homestead, with the majority of the 307th heading to Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, never to return. The base became a ghost town, with the exception of a few aircraft and equipment that were left behind.
Nobody knows why ‘465 was left behind. Whatever the reason, she and at least two other F-16s and a few C-130s were left to fend for themselves as the Category 5 hurricane prepared to strike a direct hit on Homestead, changing it forever.
Andrew’s winds devastated Homestead, literally destroying the base and rendering 2,000 buildings damaged beyond repair. In fact, the destruction was so intense, the base would be closed before the end of the year.
When Andrew finally passed and the clouds cleared, Air Force personnel would find ‘465- or at least, what was left of her.
Sitting atop some scrap metal with her front landing gear and nose cone missing, ‘465 was found lurched forward, face buried into the pavement like a sick bird. Her wings were shredded, wires dangled off of her like torn ligaments and her tail was damaged, with her red “Stingers” stripe ripped and facing skyward. The other aircraft, it seemed, had not fared much better.
For ‘465, her time at Homestead was over. After all, Homestead Air Force Base was no more.
But, as there are always tales of destruction, there are also tales of rebirth. Homestead AFB was rebuilt, eventually becoming an Air Reserve Base (ARB) and home of the 93rd Fighter Squadron, who to this day patrol the Florida coast. Known as the “Makos,” they frequently intercept aircraft and conduct operations close to shore.
As for old ‘465, well, she’s no longer flying over the skies of Florida.
She is, however, holding the line for the US Air Force in South Korea, now about halfway to her 29th birthday.
Sent to Utah’s Hill Air Force Base, ‘465 would undergo extensive reconstructive work, and would be released for duty in August of 1993, a whole year after she was all but demolished.
From Utah, she would go to Arizona, reunite with her old siblings at Moody AFB in Georgia, and even deploy to enforce the “No-Fly-Zones” over Iraq in 1996 during the period building up to the Iraq War. From there, she would return to Moody until 2001, when she would be assigned to the 35th Fighter Squadron in Korea. She remains there to this very day, still definitely heading into the skies that once threatened to crash down on her.
Nearing thirty years of age, there’s no telling what the future holds for ‘465, though one thing is for certain: when her time is up, she most certainly deserves to live out a quiet life guarding a gate somewhere.
Well, anywhere but Homestead, right?
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