William Leslie Kirk, 1932-2017

Retired Gen. William L. Kirk. Official Air Force photo.

Gen. William Kirk, one of the USAF leaders credited as a “father” of the Aggressors and the Red Flag exercise, commander of US Air Forces Europe, a two-time MiG killer and a noted expert in electronic warfare, died April 26 in Florida.

Kirk enlisted in the Air Force in 1951, training as a mechanic, but became an Aviation Cadet two years later and earned his wings and commission in 1954. In his early career he flew reconnaissance jets in the Far East, collecting airborne samples to monitor Soviet nuclear tests, and then flying the RF-101 Voodoo in Europe. He switched over to fighters in 1960; one of the first to fly the F-4 Phantom II.

After Weapons School, he went to Southeast Asia in 1967, serving in the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon, Thailand. During that tour, he shot down an enemy jet on two missions, downing a MiG-17 and a MiG-21, and receiving the Silver Star for each of those actions. He racked up a collective 130 combat missions in SEA. After commanding the 4538th Fighter Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., he returned to SEA in 1971 to set up an electronic warfare system called TEA-BALL, which helped detect and warn of the approach of enemy fighters.

Back in the States, he attended the Air War College and served in the Pentagon as Chief of the Tactics Branch in the office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, Plans, and Operations. It was there, in 1971 and 1972, that he, along with other officers, developed the concepts of the Aggressors and Red Flag, which would become an extremely realistic large-force exercise meant to season young fighter pilots before they saw actual combat.

After tours as an operations officer, he took command of the 49th Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, N.M., in 1975. After more staff assignments, in 1980, he became director of electronic combat at the Pentagon. In 1985, he took command of 9th Air Force, headquartered at Shaw AFB, S.C., and in 1987, became commander of US Air Forces, Europe. He retired in 1989.