MacDill veterans reconnect at AirFest, inspire future Airmen

  • Published
  • By Stephen Ove, 6th Air Refueling Wing historian

U.S. Air Force veterans of past MacDill units made the trip through huge crowds to join the public and each other in a celebration of Tactical Air Command’s history at the 2022 Tampa Bay AirFest here March 25-27.

More than a dozen members of previous host units at MacDill gathered at the Hangar 3 historical display painstakingly erected by a duo of base historical aficionados, Dennis Cole and his son Sean Cole.

MacDill veterans, including those of the 15th, 1st and 56th Tactical Fighter Wings, joined the Coles to share historical insights about the base with each other and the public.

Common in their discussions was the role that MacDill and the Air Force had in the most formative early years of their adult lives.

“I grew up on this flight line,” said Dennis Cole. “Been here through a lot. Almost hate to think about how long it’s been — my first Christmas and Thanksgiving away from home were right out here.”

Sean Cole, who experienced MacDill life as a dependent himself growing up in the shadow of the base relayed his memories of countless AirFests as well as the joy he had hosting the veterans and the chance to share his love of MacDill with the public.

“I have always felt there are many ways to serve your community even if it isn’t through military service, said Sean Cole. “As a civilian being able to help our retired Airmen reunite with former colleagues who they have not seen in decades is incredibly rewarding.”

While the veterans swapped war stories from decades ranging from the Vietnam War in the 1960s to the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s and everything in between, first-time visitors stopped by to take a bevy of historical curiosities and exhibits arrayed for their education and enjoyment.

Artifacts curated from the Cole’s personal collection and that of the base history office ranged from antique unit patches, mugs and uniforms to larger displays including a slideshow containing more than 200 images detailing a bygone era of base history.

Probably no exhibit elicited more attention than the towering F-4 Phantom II fighter jet model and none more recognizable than the Cole’s 1957 Studebaker truck with a restored F-16 Fighting Falcon display rising high above its bed.

Seeing a constant stream of guests approaching the display for a photo op with the artifacts and even a chance to try their hand at flying a historic aircraft simulation made the long hours the Coles invested in setting up the display deeply gratifying.

“The look of wonder in their eyes is incredibly rewarding — it helps make us wealthy souls,” said Dennis Cole.

Besides getting to share their experience at MacDill with future generations, the Coles recognized the role some young guests might well have in writing the next chapter of the Air Force story.

“Educating, motivating and inspiring our youth is the ultimate goal of everything we do at these types of events. We embrace the challenge with passion,” said the Coles.