USAF’s 23rd Wing Designates New Flagship – ‘The Whale Shark’

Photo Credit: Senior Airman Thomas Johns / U.S. Air Force / Public Domain

The 23rd Wing, a US Air Force Combat Command wing currently based out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, has dedicated its new flagship, an HC-130J Combat King II rescue plane dubbed “The Whale Shark.”

Front view of the HC-130J Combat King II
HC-130J Combat King II 13-5785 awaits its ground crew after landing at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, March 25, 2022. (Photo Credit: Senior Airman Thomas Johns / U.S. Air Force / Public Domain)

“The Flagship stands as a symbol and rallying point for the wing’s command,” said 23rd Wing historian William Godwin in a press release. “It represents the commander of the squadron, group, or wing. For the maintainers, this is a source of immense pride, knowing that the wing commander chose their aircraft as his flagship.”

The Whale Shark is the first J-model 130 to feature Flying Tiger Teeth, which represent the 23rd Wing’s historical roots in the American Volunteer Group, nicknamed the “Flying Tigers.” This was a unit of American pilots, led by Lt. Gen. Claire Chennault, who battled the Japanese over China and Burma during World War II.

Members of the unit painted shark teeth around the airscoops of their Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. “The teeth may have been first painted to inspire fear in our enemies, but it’s just as importantly a reminder and inspiration to ourselves,” said Col. Russell “Bones” Cook. “A reminder that we are here to fight, the first to run to the call of help.”

Flying Tigers personnel standing in front of a P-40 Warhawk
Flying Tigers personnel. (Photo Credit: US government employee / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The 23rd Wing is unique because it flies a number of aircraft, including HC-130J rescue planes, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II attack jets, and HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters, all of which help them achieve their mission of finding and rescuing friendly forces under enemy fire. The latter aircraft was the unit’s previous flagship and is currently in retirement at George W. Bush Airpark.

Cook chose the Combat King II to be the unit’s newest flagship because of its resemblance to the Lockheed HC-130P King, which refueled his own flights over Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We name the jets, we call them him or her, paint mustaches and teeth on them as an extension of ourselves,” he said during the dedication ceremony. “The shark teeth of Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers have once again returned to the HC-130, humanizing a machine that’s as much as warfighter as any of us.”

Col. Russell Cook standing in front of the HC-130J Combat King II
US Air Force Col. Russell “Bones” Cook, 23rd Wing commander, stands in front of HC-130J Combat King II 13-5785 after a flagship dedication ceremony at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, March 30, 2022. (Photo Credit: Senior Airman Thomas Johns / U.S. Air Force / Public Domain)

As a result of its status, the plane has Cook’s name and that of the dedicated crew chief who takes care of it painted along its side. The tail flash and number are shadowed with white accents, which will help the aircraft stand out.

The Whale Shark will continue to complete its operational duties under its new designation.