TAMPA — The Red Devils are back in town.
The Air Force squadron, which began as a transport unit flying C-47s out of Drew Field in Tampa 75 years ago, held an assumption of command ceremony Monday at MacDill Air Force Base.
Now called the 50th Air Refueling Squadron, the squadron will eventually bring eight additional KC-135 aerial refueling tankers and 282 airmen to MacDill, increasing the base mission and giving an additional boost to the local economy.
MacDill will serve as the latest home for one of the flying branch's most decorated units, which is coming to Tampa from Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, where it was known as the 50th Airlift Squadron flying C-130 transport planes.
The Red Devils began their fight during World War II, dropping paratroopers into Tunisia in 1943 and a year later in France on the night before the massive June 6 invasion of Normandy. The squadron also took part in the Korean and Vietnam wars and in the rescue of the SS Mayaguez, a U.S. cargo ship seized in 1975 by Cambodians.
For Lt. Col. Ricardo J. Lopez, the squadron's new commander, it was a morning of pride and history set against a backdrop of concern.
Lopez, who grew up in Puerto Rico, still has family back on the hurricane-ravaged island.
"It's been a challenge," said Lopez, 41. "We've been working on standing up the squadron for the last month, but the last two weeks I have been thinking about all the work in Puerto Rico and wanting to go over and help."
But Lopez said his father, Ramon Lopez, would tell him to let go of any feelings of conflict he might have about not being able to go home.
"I am pretty sure Dad would tell me, if I could talk to him, 'You need to stay in Tampa and take care of the squadron,' " Lopez said. "That's how he raised me."
Lopez said that for the most part, his family, whom he was able to communicate with for the first time on Sunday, survived intact.
The history of his new command is not lost on Lopez, rated as a senior pilot with nearly 4,000 hours flying KC-135s, C-130s and T-53s.
"I don't have words to express how I feel and what it means," said Lopez, who started his Air Force career 17 years ago at MacDill. "The Red Devils have an incredible history, and it is a huge responsibility to fill those shoes and make them proud."
Lopez said it will take about a year for all the airmen coming to the wing to arrive at MacDill. Many are already stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where refueling missions are launched around the U.S. Central Command region, including over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Lopez himself just returned from there, marking the 10th deployment of his career.
The first of the new jets will arrive Oct. 19, he said, with two set to come to MacDill every month from Air Force bases around the country that will be receiving the new KC-46 Pegasus refueling jets.
The additional eight aircraft brings to 24 the number of KC-135s that will be shared by the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing. At a time when both Congress and the Air Force are looking at cutting back the number of installations, that's good news for the base and the surrounding community, said base commander Col. April Vogel.
Along with the new planes and airmen will come families, who will be spending money in the Tampa Bay area.
"You can never be certain of what the long-term plans are," Vogel said. "But having this many aircraft with this capability only makes us more important."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.