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Library > Fact Sheets > Lajes Field History - 1973 Arab-Israel Conflict and More


Posted 6/6/2006 Printable Fact Sheet

1973 Arab-Israel Conflict

On 6 October 1973, the countries of Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel. The Soviet Union took up the task of resupplying the aggressors in this conflict that became known as the Yom Kippur War. President Richard Nixon vowed U.S. help to the Israelis. On 12 October 1973, the Military Airlift Command received orders to move supplies and ammunition to Israel. U.S. allies in Europe, fearful of losing oil supplies from the Arab oil producing nations, denied the U.S. use of air bases for the operation.

Only Portugal agreed to cooperate fully with the airlift giving U.S. landing rights at Lajes Field. Within two days of receiving the orders (14 October 1973), the first flight unloaded in Israel. During the initial 48 hours of the historic Operation Nickel Grass airlift, an unprecedented 136 landings and 88 departures were directed, managed, and supported by Lajes Field. C-141s and C-5s flew a distance of about 6,500 nautical miles, landing to refuel only at Lajes. The airlift lasted until 14 November 1973 and resulted in the delivery of 22,395 tons of cargo. There were 312 C-5 and 845 C-141 transiting aircraft through Lajes during the operation. Lajes Field went into 24-hour operations to support the aircraft and personnel.

The Yom Kippur War ended with a cease fire between the warring nations. Operation Nickel Grass sustained Israel and outperformed the Soviets supply effort to Egypt and Syria. Soviet transport aircraft (AN-12 and AN-22) moved 15,000 tons of cargo, but only had to cover a distance of 1,700 miles.

This airlift had a two-fold affect on the U.S. Air Force. First, the Air Force modified the C-141 fleet for mid-air refueling and renewed interest in the C-5s aerial refueling capability. The second confirmed the importance of the Air Force maintaining basing facilities at Lajes. In January 1974, the Department of Defense reconsidered the U.S. Navy command at Lajes Field. The 1605th Air Base Wing earned the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for its effort during Operation Nickel Grass.

Air Rescue Mission

The early 1970s also marked the end of an era at Lajes when the 57th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron was inactivated on 1 December 1972. The U.S. air rescue mission had been at Lajes since 1948 with the activation of Flight B, 7th Air Rescue Squadron. In 1952, the unit designation changed to the 57th Air Rescue Squadron. The Air Rescue Squadron mission was to intercept lost or damaged aircraft and bring them back to Lajes.

It also performed search and rescue for downed aircraft and ocean-going vessels. Through the years the Rescue Squadron flew SB-17s, C-54s, SH-19s helicopters, and C-130s. The Squadron generated thousands of sorties and hundreds of saves throughout its history. One of those saves included rescuing 48 lives from the Portuguese ship SS Arnel that hit the rocks off Santa Maria in 1959. In the 1960s, the rescue squadron supported the Gemini and later Apollo Space missions. When the 57th was inactivated at Lajes, the Portuguese Air Force took up the air rescue mission. Also, Navy P-3 assisted in search and rescue missions.

Distinguished Visitors

From its earliest days Lajes had the pleasure of hosting many distinguished visitors. Its proximity made Lajes a desired location for dignitary and statespersons to stop, refuel, and rest. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first American president to stop at Lajes in 1960, but almost every President since has made an appearance (See Chronology). Lajes has also been on the forefront of world history.

In 1945, peace delegates from Europe and Africa stopped en route to the San Francisco Peace Conference. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter and Egypt's Prime Minister Anwar Sadat stopped at Lajes en route to high-level Middle East peace talks. Perhaps one of the most talked about visits was in December 1971 when President Richard Nixon met with French President Georges Pompidou for a high-level conference in the City of Angra.

The most recent visitor was the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton, who visited the base and gave a speech to Team Lajes. In addition to kings, queens and other heads of state, Lajes hosted commanders from all major commands, Air Force, NATO and other allied military leaders. All distinguished visitors were and still are given full honors. Comments on the service provided and the support were always positive.

It was not always the serious visitor who stopped at Lajes Field. USO tours were a popular entertainment treat for U.S. service members separated from family back home. Many entertainers stopped to give shows at Lajes. Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and other performers and musical groups performed to make the troops laugh, and forget about life for a while.

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