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5 ‘First of the Finest’ graduates visit Columbus 50 years later

Five members from Undergraduate Pilot Training class 71-01, nicknamed “First of the Finest,” stand in front of a T-37 Tweet, July 3, 2019, on Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sharon Ybbara)

Five members from Undergraduate Pilot Training class 71-01, nicknamed “First of the Finest,” stand in front of a T-37 Tweet, July 3, 2019, on Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sharon Ybbara)

Robert Lacey, takes a photo during a T-1A Jayhawk flight Jul 3, 2019, in Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. airspace. Two Undergraduate Pilot Training 71-01 class members, retired Cols. James Donnelly and Robert Lacey, were able to fly in a T-1A with the 48th Flying Training Squadron during their UPT class’s 50th anniversary. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hannah Bean)

Robert Lacey, takes a photo during a T-1A Jayhawk flight Jul 3, 2019, in Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. airspace. Two Undergraduate Pilot Training 71-01 class members, retired Cols. James Donnelly and Robert Lacey, were able to fly in a T-1A with the 48th Flying Training Squadron during their UPT class’s 50th anniversary. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hannah Bean)

Retired Col. James Donnelly, Undergraduate Pilot Training class 71-01 graduate speaks with 14th Operations Group leadership July 3, 2019, on Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Five Classmates from the 71-01 class visited Columbus AFB 50 years after their pilot training began and attended the 50th Flying Training Squadron’s heritage aircraft unveiling. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hannah Bean)

Retired Col. James Donnelly, Undergraduate Pilot Training class 71-01 graduate speaks with 14th Operations Group leadership July 3, 2019, on Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Five Classmates from the 71-01 class visited Columbus AFB 50 years after their pilot training began and attended the 50th Flying Training Squadron’s heritage aircraft unveiling. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Hannah Bean)

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. --

Five classmates from the first Undergraduate Pilot Training Class toured their old home, Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, July 3.

The members of UPT Class 71-01 stepped onto the base with a sense of familiarity, unanimously saying that although the base looked different, it felt distinctly similar to their time here 50 years ago. The member’s began their journey in UPT on July 17, 1969.

Capt. Jeremy Dunbar, 37th Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot, was the event coordinator for the 71-01 50th anniversary.

“Today was an incredible opportunity for Team BLAZE to experience our heritage and hear about what pilot training was like 50 years ago,” Dunbar said.

Two of the class members, Robert Lacey and retired Col. James Donnelly, were able to fly in a T-1A Jayhawk with the 48th Flying Training Squadron. The other three members of 71-01, retired Brig. Gen. Raymond Franck, retired Maj. William Buchanan, and retired Capt. William Hodges, flew T-6 Texan II, T-1 Jayhawk and T-38 Talon simulators to experience Columbus AFB from the virtual skies.

After the flight and simulator experiences they met with Col. Samantha Weeks, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, for a welcome and wing mission brief.

Following their brief, they toured the T-6 Texan II flying training squadrons, and reminisced about their time in the T-37 Tweets. They asked questions about the current flying training atmosphere and experienced flying the new virtual reality T-6 trainers with the innovation flight.

The five pilots also had the opportunity to see the unveiling of the 50th Flying Training Squadron’s heritage aircraft. The 50th FTS had been a part of the 71-01 class training, where Hodges, a 14th OG simulator instructor pilot, had taken the first T-38 Talon flight off of Columbus AFB runways.

“We really wanted this unveiling to be part of the event today, in particular, because of the history of this squadron and the pursuit of our heritage as a pilot training wing,” said Col. Derek Stuart, 14th Operations Group commander.

Ending the 50th anniversary event, the “First of the Finest” were read aloud their yearbook bios written while they attended pilot training many years ago. They followed their bios with a final word and “thank you.”

“It was unique in that when we came, we were the first people to be here, the base was empty at first, but today it’s very much its own small community,” Donnelly said. “I appreciate the walk down memory lane and seeing the growth from our first months at Columbus. Capt. Dunbar had really done a great job facilitating the tour and showing us the highlights of the base as it stands today.”