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From Tigers to Sharks, history comes full circle

The American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers with their P-40 Warhawk aircraft in the early 1940s.

The American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers with their P-40 Warhawk aircraft in the early 1940s. (US Air Force graphic by Matthew Jurgens)

Col. Walt Jackim, 45th Space Wing vice commander, receives a coin from Frank Losonsky, the sole remaining member of the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers during a visit to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. on Sept. 21, 2017. Losonsky and 50 descendants of the original members, toured the Cape and learned how the Flying Tigers and the 45th Space Wing share a distinct lineage as subordinate units of the 14th Air Force. From P-40 Warhawk aircraft to launching rockets into space, 14th Air Force units have been breaking barriers for many decades.

Col. Walt Jackim, 45th Space Wing vice commander, receives a coin from Frank Losonsky, the sole remaining member of the American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers during a visit to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. on Sept. 21, 2017. Losonsky and 50 descendants of the original members, toured the Cape and learned how the Flying Tigers and the 45th Space Wing share a distinct lineage as subordinate units of the 14th Air Force. From P-40 Warhawk aircraft to launching rockets into space, 14th Air Force units have been breaking barriers for many decades. (US Air Force photo by Matthew Jurgens)

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, Fla. --

Frank Losonsky, a former crew chief with the World War II American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers, visited Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sept 21.

As the last living member of the original Tigers, Losonskly, and his reunion group were on a quest to explore the connection between the Flying Tigers and the 45th Space Wing Sharks during their 76th annual gathering.

Before touring the Cape, Col. Walt Jackim, vice commander of the 45th Space Wing addressed Losonsky and 50 relatives of members of the original group at the Sands History Center.

“What you are about to see is your legacy,” said Jackim. “You have seen the great transition from tactical fighting and our early use of aircraft all the way through strategic bombing and the development of the Air Force, fighter jets, rocketry and satellites. We are proud and honored to share our lineage with you and the Flying Tigers.”

Losonsky, now 96 years old, was surrounded by his three sons and noted the significance of their visit.

“It was a long time before the Flying Tigers were recognized at all, and then all of a sudden we started to get recognition. This is a good place to be,” said Losonsky.

Losonsky’s life and legacy were forever changed when he and 300 soldiers were recruited in April of 1941 to form the AVG Flying Tigers to aid China in the fight against Japan. This 20 year old from Detroit, Michigan was about to embark on the biggest adventure of his life. 

As a member of the “Hell’s Angels”, 3rd Squadron, Losonsky faced the tremendous challenge of maintaining the outdated P-40 Warhawk aircraft that resulted in the Tigers destroying 286 Japanese aircraft. 

“I felt like I was doing something,” he said.  “I wasn’t scared, I just thought that I could help a little.”

In July of 1942, the group was disbanded and became part of the China Air Task Force. They were later realigned under the newly established 14th Air Force in March of 1943.  After a number of redesignations and inactivations, 14th Air Force became the numbered Air Force, or the tactical organization, for Air Force Space Command on July 1, 1993.

To enhance esprit-de-corps during the groups early years, aircraft noses were painted to resemble tiger sharks which earned them the nickname Flying Tigers. Even today, modern-day aircraft use the same tiger shark markings that remain an integral part of the 14th Air Force emblem.

While the reunion members were pretty familiar with their own history, most were unfamiliar with the shared 14th Air Force lineage with the 45th Space Wing. Mr. Jim Hale, a public affairs volunteer, provided the connection between the two. 

“A quick trip through the history of the 14th Air Force takes us from ‘Flying Tigers’ to ‘Tiger Sharks’ to our current 45th Space Wing ‘Sharks’,” said Hale.

Beginning in 1949 as the Joint Long Range Proving Ground, today’s 45th Space Wing underwent several name changes throughout the years on its way to becoming the World’s Premier Gateway To Space aligned under the 14th Air Force.

From the original Flying Tigers in propeller-driven fighter aircraft more than 76 years ago, to the modern-day space program, this shared lineage is a proud testament to the brave men and women throughout history that dare to break barriers every day.