'Squarepatch' Pride: celebrating five decades of aerial refueling

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Victor J. Caputo
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
There are a multitude of characteristics that can make one unit stand out from another: its people, location, history, and accomplishments.

The 384th Air Refueling Squadron, also known as the "Squarepatchers" due to their unique squadron patch, is one unit that has pridefully carried a combination of those factors through more than five decades of aerial refueling.

The squadron recently hosted its 18th biannual reunion Oct. 24 to 26, celebrating more than 50 years as a tanker squadron and 40 years of flying the KC-135 at McConnell. They welcomed back former Squarepatchers who served as long ago as 1955.

"This is a special squadron," said Lt. Col. Ben Jonsson, 384th ARS commander. "The people here have pride in who they are as aviators and hold themselves to a high standard of excellence."

The squadron began its heritage as the 594th Bombardment Squadron, operating bombers during World War II. It was re-designated the 384th ARS in 1955 and was assigned to the 4050th Air Refueling Wing out of Westover Air Force Base, Mass.

The 384th ARS flew the KC-97 Stratotanker during their time at Westover, which also marked the beginning of their aerial refueling history.

The squadron was deactivated in 1966 before it was moved to McConnell AFB, Kan., and re-activated in 1973. The Squarepatchers have since won many awards and brought several "firsts" to McConnell.

"The 384th has a distinct record of excellence," said Jonsson, "which fuels the drive and pride of the current generation of Squarepatchers."

Some of the honors they can claim include three Saunders Trophies for the Best Air Refueling Squadron in Strategic Air Command and four Gen. Carl A. Spaatz Outstanding Air Refueling Squadron awards, the latter of which has only existed since the deactivation of SAC.

The special operations air refueling mission and the refuelable tanker mission that McConnell AFB carries out were also unique to the 384th ARS for the first year it they came to McConnell. It was also a former Squarepatcher, retired Col. Bill Fedor, that delivered the first KC-135R model Stratotanker here, marking the beginning of modern Stratotanker force.

Ultimately, the biggest thing that separates a Squarepatcher from any other squadron is the square patch itself.

"It's the only patch in the Air Force that's square," said Senior Master Sgt. Tom Ireland, 384th ARS superintendent, "that by itself kind of forces us to be unique."

The origins of the square patch date back to the 384th's activation. The original design for the squadron patch was a square shape and was sent to higher headquarters for approval. Squadron leadership assumed it would be approved and had the patch painted on the KC-97 aircraft and sewn onto aircrew jackets and hats.

The squadron commander finally received word nine months later that the patch was not approved. The commander took the letter and locked it away in the back of a safe so that the squadron could continue using the square patch.

The design was ultimately modified upon the sqaudron's reactivation in 1973 in a bid to stay true to the original design.

Squarepatch pride goes deeper than their patch or trophies in their display case.

"The square patch is totally indigenous to the tanker fleet," said Capt. Ryan Stanfill, 384th ARS chief executive officer. "You say "square patch" and you instantly think of the 384th. We take care of each other really well, and I think it's because of the identity of being a Squarepatcher."

For Stanfill, a second generation Squarepatcher, squadron heritage is stronger than ideals and identity; it runs in his blood. His father served in the unit for the final four years of his career.

"Having that legacy is unique, and it's something I am personally proud of," said Stanfill. "When I first got here, I actually found his old patch in the officer's club."

The chance to serve in the same squadron as his father and "carry the same torch" brings a great sense of pride in being a Squarepatcher, said Stanfill.

A desire to bridge the gap between generations of Squarepatchers led to the biannual reunion, which marks the gathering of Airmen from as far back as the KC-97 era.

"We have an opportunity to take the current generation of 'Squares' and connect them to our legacy by introducing them to our heroic alumni," said Jonsson. "The newer guys were able to rub shoulders with aircrew and crew chiefs who first signed into the squadron in 1955."

More than 100 people attended the reunion this year and took part in a variety of events, including the chance to use the boom operator weapons system trainer and the KC-135 pilot simulator.

The group was also able to tour a model of the nose section of a KC-46, the upcoming replacement for the KC-135.

This is one of the ways the reunion tries to connect past generations, giving KC-97 pilots the chance to look at the future of aerial refueling with the current aircrew of the KC-135 and future aircrew of the KC-46, said Jonsson.

Other activities included a 5k run and a dinner held in Wichita, Kan., where the Squarepatchers unveiled the new Maj. Gen. A. J. Stewart Tanker Excellence Award.

The award is named in honor of retired Maj. Gen. A. J. Stewart, a career tanker pilot and former 384th ARS commander.

"We created this award as a way of inspiring future 'Squares' to say 'This is one of our own,'" said Jonsson. "He grew up in the tanker, he was 'KC-135 through and through,' and one of our very best. His life impacted thousands, so we wanted to say 'Look at your forefathers, look at the legacy that comes before you.'"

Jonsson and Ireland plan to develop current Squarepatchers into the next set of senior leaders in the Air Force, and they emphasized it begins with individual accountability.

"We call it the 'Square Standard,'" said Jonsson. "Whether they're off duty shopping at the commissary, whether it's how they wear their uniforms or how they fly the aircraft, we expect the highest level of excellence."

The Airmen have yet to disappoint leadership.

"Everyone expects the best out of everyone every day, no matter what they're doing," said Ireland. "They know they represent the squadron, and that is the accepted standard for the 'Squares,' and I think they believe in that."

Many Squarepatchers said they consider themselves lucky to be part of the squadron during any part of the their careers, but some Airmen who began their operational careers as a "Square" are sure they won't soon forget it.

"There's no better squadron than the 384th," said Stanfill, who has been a Squarepatcher for almost two and a half years. "I am definitely glad that I started here. I don't think you're going to get a higher quality of aviators and Airmen than those from the 384th. The experience in this squadron is going to be tough to beat."