Sioux City, Iowa --
Dennis Swanstrom (Swany) joined the 185th Tactical Fighter Group in April of 1966 during a time when many of his contemporaries were looking for ways to avoid military service. The farm kid from Waverly Neb. had graduated from the University of Nebraska the previous spring, then found his way to the Iowa Air National Guard unit based at the Sioux City, Iowa airport.
Just like the young lieutenant, the Air Force and units of the Air National Guard were still new and coming into their own as a separate service. Swanstrom was selected to become a pilot and after completing his initial training he began flying the unit’s F-100 Super Sabre.
While Swanstrom was completing his initial pilot training the rest of the unit was activated for service in the Vietnam War. The group returned to Iowa in 1969 following their yearlong deployment to Phu Cat Airbase.
Some of the returning aviators earned their wings during the 2nd World War, many were called again for service during the Korean War and now the latest group of veteran pilots had just returned from Vietnam. Swanstrom and several other new lieutenants had the unique opportunity to be under the instruction of these war tested veterans.
It was on the shoulders of these giants where Swanstrom and the newest crop of flyers would begin to hone their pilot and leadership skills as their careers began.
The constantly evolving global threat caused the Air Guard to grow during Swanstrom’s tenure with the unit. By the late 1970’s the unit’s F-100s had reached the end of their life cycle and pilots of Swanstrom’s generation ushered in a new era with the A-7 Corsair. It was with the Corsair that 185th pilots and maintainers would solidify their presence in the Air National Guard as a top ground attack unit.
According to Iowa Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Larry Christensen who served under Swanstrom during that time, the unit earned numerous aviation and aircraft maintenance awards during the 1980’s while flying the A-7. By the end of the decade, in August of 1987 Lt. Col. Swanstrom was selected to be the unit commander.
“He was going to make the unit great and drag as many people with him as he could,” said Christensen.
In the summer of 1989 the resilience of the unit would be tested like never before when a civilian airliner, United Flight 232 crashed at the Sioux City airport. The quick reaction of the unit, under the direction of Swanstrom, is credited for saving numerous lives and showcased the heart and strength of the unit on a national stage.
“He had the respect of the community because of his care for the unit,” Christensen said, recalling how both the unit and community benefited from having Swanstrom at the helm.
By 1991 the unit was again transitioning to a new air frame when they traded their A-7s for the newest generation fighter jet, the F-16 Falcon. Following the conversion to the F-16 the unit grew from a “Group” to a “Wing” which added numerous full and part time jobs.
According to Christensen, Col. Swanstrom who was known as a consummate promoter, was the perfect commander for that time. Swanstrom was able to apply a successful background in marketing to his management style as the new leader of an Air Wing. The skill set would also come in handy at making the most of the latest aircraft conversion. Whenever possible Swanstrom pitched the greatness of the mission, the greatness of the unit and the greatness of his people.
At the time each 185th F-16 was embossed with unique nose art, Swanstrom’s jet had a cartoon depiction of spike collared bulldog wearing a Colonel’s cap with the words, “THE BIG BOSS” in all caps.
“That’s exactly the kind of guy he was,” said Christensen, recalling the nose art and Swanstrom’s propensity to “bulldog” a project when he had a good idea.
Christensen said it was not just Colonel Swanstrom, but also his wife Lynn, who was an integral part of the community, recalling her role in founding organizations like Leadership Siouxland in Sioux City.
Swanstrom would become the stuff of legend when he bulldogged a special 50th anniversary paint scheme on one of the unit’s F-16’s. Units of the Air Force can get permission to paint “special markings” on aircraft, usually in the form of nose art or as a tail flash. Swanstrom’s idea was to paint the entire aircraft a non-tactical gold color in honor of the unit’s 50th anniversary in 1996.
As the story goes, Swanstrom asked permission to paint the sleek designed anniversary aircraft and the extravagant request was denied. Much to the delight of his Airmen however, he pressed on and painted the aircraft shinny metallic gold, overlaid with 50th anniversary markings and the words “Pride of Siouxland,” across the fuselage.
Swanstrom’s goal was to remind people of the proud history of the organization which he had been a part of for 30 years. He also wanted to celebrate the current generation’s contribution to a legacy of excellence. According to Christensen, Swanstrom was extraordinarily successful at getting people excited about coming to work and giving one hundred percent.
“If you can motivate people it makes your job as a commander much easier,” Christensen commented, “He did that with great vigor, he was a great leader.”
Former 185th Fighter Wing Commander, Colonel Dennis Swanston died from cancer on January 30, 2021 about a month after turning 78 years old.