The German Air Force are well known for their dedication and enthusiasm to marking major milestones for their various aircraft types. When it was announced that the venerable F-4F Phantom II would retire in 2013, AeroResource made sure to be at Wittmund for the finale. Ben Montgomery reports from a wet but impressive event.

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II is one of, if not the, most successful fighters to be produced in the western world with exports of several Phantom variants to 11 nations, as well as vast numbers in service with its native military forces (the United States Air Force, United States Navy and United States Marine Corps). The Phantom first flew in May 1958 and was produced in an overall run of 5,195 units from that year through to 1981.

Germany and the Phantom

Germany’s association with the Phantom dates back 40 years, to when the first of 175 ordered F-4F Phantom IIs was rolled out on May 24th 1973. The F-4F was a downrated version of the standard F-4E airframe in service with the US armed forces lacking the AIM-7 Sparrow launch capability, air to air refuelling provisions and a downgraded AN/APQ-120 radar. The airframe was lightened by 1.5 tonnes due to removal of the No.7 fuel tank and deletion of the Boundary Layer Control (BLC) system.

The initial limitations of the airframe were overcome in part by the Peace Rhine modification program of 1975-1983. Modified by DASA (Deutsche Aerospace AG), the program sought to upgrade the AN/APQ-120, as well as adding compatibility with the AIM-9L Sidewinder in the air to air role and the AGM-65M Maverick in the air to ground role.

Additional upgrades included the later Improved Combat Efficiency modification, which again upgraded the radar system to the AN-APG-65 and added the ability to fire the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM). AN/ALR-68 Radar Warning Receivers were fitted to the aircraft during the upgrade which lasted from 1990 to 1996 when the final ICE modified F-4F returned to service.

It was, in part, the increased combat effectiveness of these modifications that allowed the F-4F to continue to hold its own and maintain its place as the Luftwaffe’s primary Quick Reaction Alert aircraft despite many other air arms were busy replacing their aging fighters with modern types such as the F-15 or Eurofighter Typhoon. However, the longevity of the ‘Spook’ was not entirely due to its own prowess – the initial out of service date (OSD) had to be postponed as the result of delays with the introduction of the Typhoon (known as the Eurofighter EF2000 in German service). The first F-4Fs were withdrawn from service in 2004 as JG73 transitioned to the Eurofighter. JG74 and JBG31 followed suit (with the latter converting from the Panavia Tornado), whilst JG71 were the fourth Luftwaffe unit to be marked for EF2000 conversion.

Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen”

JG71 is one of the earliest fighter units of the reformed German Air Force. After World War Two, as the German government began seeking to restructure and rearm, 75 Canadair Sabre Mk.5s were provided to Germany by Canada. Impressed by the aircraft, the German Government ordered an additional 225 of the upgraded and more powerful Mk.6 variant. These aircraft were to be used to equip new fighter wings, including JG71, which stood up on 6th June 1959 at the former RAF Ahlhorn equipped with 50 of the 225 Sabre Mk.6s.

The unit takes its name from Manfred von Richthofen, officially credited as the top German ace of the war with 80 confirmed combat victories. Richthofen, after joining the Air Service in 1915, flew with Jagdstaffeln (or Jasta) 2, Jasta 11 and finally with Jagdgeschwader 1 – known too many as “The Flying Circus” because of the vivid red with which the unit painted their aircraft. Richthofen held the command of both Jasta 11 and Jagdgeschwader 1 prior to his death in April 1918, at which time he was considered to be a German national Hero.

On the 43rd anniversary of Richthofen’s death (21st April), the then German Federal President Heinrich Lübke bestowed the “Richthofen” name upon JG71 whilst they were based at Ahlhorn flying the Sabre Mk.6. The name had previously been bestowed upon Richthofen’s own unit – Jagdgeschwader 1. The Commanding General of the Luftwaffe at the time, General Ernst Wilhelm von Hoeppner gave Richthofen’s name to JG1, officially naming them Jagdgeschwader Freiherr von Richthofen No. 1.

JG71 and the F-4F

JG71 obtained its first F-4F in 1974 and formally decommissioned its previous mount – the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – in September of that year. When the wing obtained the F-4F, one of its secondary tasks was that of Fighter Ground Attack (for which role the F-4F was later qualified on the AGM-65 Maverick), JG71 withdrew from this role in 1988 leaving it to focus exclusively on the fighter role, a tasking which it maintains today.

JG71’s Phantoms provide part of Germanys Quick Reaction Alert coverage, ready to launch at very short notice to defend the country’s airspace against unknown aircraft threats (much the same as with the Royal Air Force Typhoon QRA in the UK). As part of this mission, JG71 has deployed under the NATO Baltic Air Policing QRA on several occasions. The Baltic Air Policing missions assist NATO member states (in this case, those in the Baltic States) to police their airspace when they may not have suitable air defence assets of their own. The mission is shared between multiple NATO members (so far 14 nations have participated) and the F-4F has deployed on the mission five times since missions inception during March 2004.

Now in 2013, JG71 holds the mantle for the F-4F in Luftwaffe service, being the last unit to operate the type in a combat capacity. JG71 formally received their first Typhoon on 8th April 2013, when EF2000 3066, adorned with the famous Richthofen “R”, arrived at Wittmundhafen. The wing had previously been able to operate several other EF2000s, forming a mixed fleet. Now that JG71 have their own assigned EF2000s, work can begin to train the many trades required to operate the aircraft and the eventual aim is to have a full wing of 20 aircraft in 2018 although, in the short term, the Wing will be reclassified as the Tactical Air Force Group “Richthofen” and supported by other EF2000 units until it reaches full strength.

With the Phantom being retired, it’s easy to forget that the unit, and their rich history, will still continue to live on. Don’t expect to see the distinctive Richthofen red “R” disappearing from Luftwaffe aircraft any time soon.

Phantom Pharewell – 28/29 June 2013

Preparations for the Phantom Pharewell were publically unveiled by JG71 back in November 2012, when it was announced that a “Spotters Day” would be held on the 28th June 2013, followed by the official public event and flyout on Saturday 29th. Wittmund had held a well received Spotters Day earlier in 2012 (see JG71 Spotters Day), and so anticipation of the final event was understandably at a high. At the same time it was also announced that four special paint schemes would be prepared to see the Phantom off and that the first Luftwaffe Phantom delivered (3701) would also be the last to retire – First In, Last Out!

JG71 decided that to celebrate the long career of the F-4F, three of their four special schemes would be those of past operational paint markings known as “Norm” schemes. Norm 72 was the first noted out of the paint shop, adorning F-4F 3810, and returning it from the current Norm 90 paint to something more typical of operations in the 1970s when the Luftwaffe first received their Phantoms. The Norm 72 scheme featured large geometric patterns of green and brown which camouflaged the aircraft well at low level over the German countryside. However, the dark colours and high visibility national markings meant that the aircraft were easily spotted in high level combat. The final operational paint scheme to be unveiled was the Norm 81 example, on aircraft 3833. Norm 81 was the result of the Luftwaffe encouraging its pilots to come up with a more effective paint scheme than Norm 72, and was applied when the aircraft were sent through the Peace Rhine upgrade. Following closely behind the Norm 72 scheme was a freshly painted Norm 90 (and thus not noticed by the aviation community as it looks much the same – albeit far cleaner!) than the rest of the operational fleet.  Norm 90 was the successor to Norm 81, and was applied whilst the aircraft were undergoing the ICE upgrade.

The final retirement scheme was more in the vein of the Luftwaffe’s traditional special schemes – lots of bright colours and large designs but all blended into a paint scheme that is still stylish and suitable for the aircraft type. Fittingly adorning aircraft 3701, which was the first Phantom delivered to the Luftwaffe, and one of only a handful left in service at the Pharewell event, the aircraft featured “First In – Last Out” markings denoting that as well as being the first aircraft in service, 3701 would be the last to leave as well.

JG71 had been retiring their fleet in the run-up to the Pharewell event at the rate of 2 per month, and by the event itself had only 9 F-4Fs present (that were seen)  including the four special designs.

Visiting Aircraft and Air Forces

Unfortunately the weather forecast was not the only downer for the event as several of the advertised visiting aircraft unable to attend. With Germany having good links to other Air Forces in Europe, it had been hoped that an example of the Phantom from all three European operators would be present – which as well as the Luftwaffe includes the Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (Turkish Air Force) and ???????? ????????? (Greek Air Force). Unfortunately the two Turkish F-4E Terminator 2000s cancelled some weeks prior to the event and the Greek F-4E only managed to reach as far as Aviano AB in Italy before presumably being put off by the weather.

Other cancellations/no-shows came in the form of the Polish Air Force MiG-29A Fulcrums (which wowed English crowds at RIAT 2012), and several examples of German Air Force aircraft including newer additions to the fleet such as the Bombardier BD700 and NH Industries NH90. It was really no surprise that some aircraft were unable to attend as the poor weather covered much of northern Germany and limited all of those aircraft that did attend to a virtually straight in approach with only limited showmanship from the AG51 Panavia Tornado ECR and Marineflieger P-3C Orion.

WTD-61 “Test Phantoms”

Aside from JG71, the only unit in the Luftwaffe still operating the F-4F is WTD-61, based at Manching AB. Wehrtechnische Dienststelle 61, or the Bundeswehr Technical and Airworthiness Centre for Aircraft operate two F-4F Phantoms – 3813 and 3815 in a variety of test roles. WTD-61 will continue to fly the Phantom until the end of July, when their aircraft will also be withdrawn. For the Phantom Pharewell, WTD-61 sent both of their Phantoms to Wittmund, with one recently repainted into a fifth Pharewell scheme. Marked in a fetching black and orange checker, 3813 featured a large “Spook” motif on the wings and tailfin and “Don’t let me die – I want to fly” titles on the fuselage.

Spotters Day

On Friday 28th, JG71 held a “Spotters Day” event to allow photographers and enthusiasts access to the Phantoms prior to the anticipated 130,000 strong crowds on Saturday. The weather did little to dampen the enthusiast’s commitment to seeing off the Phantom, proved by a crowded fence line for the arrivals on Thursday morning. Approximately 5,000 applications had been received by JG71 prior to the event which, it should be noted, came with no cost to the enthusiast – entry to the event was totally free!

Initial impressions of the organisation were somewhat poor, with an extremely long queue to board the shuttle buses onto the base. This impression was happily quickly proved wrong, as the queue was transported quickly and efficiently onto Wittmund AB at which point the enthusiasts were left (within limits!) to their own devices.

All the Phantoms on display were positioned outside Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS) sites, with clean and photographically pleasing backgrounds and in some places access ladders were provided for an elevated photograph. As with any photographic event which attract vast numbers of visitors, getting the clean photograph that many wanted was a matter of patience and understanding – qualities which for the most part everyone displayed.

The Luftwaffe however, clearly had decided that providing static photographic opportunities with the F-4F was not enough for the event, and provided two dynamic demonstrations. JG71’s maintenance unit had Phantom 3864 mounted up on hydraulic jacks, and were periodically cycling the landing gear, flight control surfaces and tail hook – which without the roar of the J79 engine were surprisingly quiet compared to some other types (notably the SEPECAT Jaguar, which performs a similar display at the RAF Cosford Airshow).

The second dynamic display was much more of a visual and audible spectacle. F-4F 3862 was parked out on the taxiways, pointing nose on to the crowd. At several points during the day, it performed a cartridge assisted start prior to performing engine runs up to high power. The cartridge start is used when ground power equipment may not be available and the aircraft needs to rapidly start and launch such as a Quick Reaction Alert scenario. Each cartridge is about 9” long and fits into a breech in the pneumatic starter of the J79. Made of a solid rocket propellant type material, the cartridge will burn for about 25 seconds, producing a high pressure hot gas which is used to “kick start” the engine. Operation for the crew is simple – simply turning battery and ignition to the on position, and pushing the engine start button. Despite the huge amounts of smoke created by the cartridge, the ones in use are actually a newer “smokeless” version – the early cartridges produced vast clouds of black, soot filled smoke.

Also viewable on the Spotters Day were the visiting aircraft although, unfortunately, with many of these aircraft (rotary wing assets excluded) barriers had been placed extremely close to the airframes effectively killing any photographic opportunities. More arrivals continued whilst the enthusiasts were on base, including a pair of Spanish Air Force EF-18A Hornets and a Luftwaffe VIP configured Eurocopter AS532 Cougar.

Whilst the Enthusiasts event was billed to end at 5PM, the “one last shot” syndrome came into play and it was closer to 6PM by the time the majority of visitors had left Wittmund. One cannot blame JG71 for wanting all visitors off the base reasonably early – a lot of preparation was still required for the public event on Saturday!

The Phinal Phlyout

On 29th June 2013, JG71 opened their gates to the public to celebrate the service of the F-4F in Germany, and to see the workhorse off in style. As well as the static aircraft displays from other units, there was also a light flying display during the day including displays from Bücker Bestmann and Boeing PT17 Kaydet aircraft. The Fokker DR.1 display had to be cancelled due to aircraft serviceability. Also displaying were examples of current aircraft and the only other German military display of the day from the Bolkow Bo105.

BAe Flight Systems provided a flight display from one of their Douglas A-4N Skyhawks. The Skyhawk is used by BAe at Wittmund to provide target towing facilities for the local F-4Fs as well as for other NATO air arms as required. After several flypasts in various configurations (slow, fast, hook down), the Skyhawk added some drama to the display with an unplanned landing onto the Rotary Hydraulic Arrestor Gear, because of concerns about the landing gear.

There was only ever going to be one highlight of the event, which was scheduled to begin at 2PM with the launch of four F-4F Phantoms. The display, beginning a few minutes late, was synchronised with a mass rush to the crowd line (situated a mere 5 metres from the active taxiway) – it was obvious that the crowd were all here for the same reason.

The intention had been to fly all four special schemed Phantoms in the display (Norm 72, Norm 81, Norm 90 and the Phinal Phlyout scheme). Unfortunately the Norm 81 scheme (3833) suffered problems starting so the crew had to quickly swap the spare, which in any case wore another special scheme. The spare aircraft, 3828 is adorned with markings commemorating the 45 years of maintenance conducted at Jever Airbase by Luftwaffeninstandhaltungsgruppe 21 (LIG 21). Jever, located in Schortens, gives the name on the side of the aircraft.

Once airborne (each aircraft giving a performance takeoff, with a high-G pull at the end of the runway), the four Phantoms formed up together and conducted initially slow speed flypasts down Runway 26. Every flypast was easy to follow around the airfield, with the distinctive smoke trail of the J79 engine marking out the Phantom’s route.

The initially sedate start to the display allowed two EF2000s, which had overflown the airfield at altitude earlier, to form up on the wingtips of the Phantoms for a combined flypast. At this point, JG71 ceremonially transferred from the Phantom to the EF2000.

As the EF2000s flew through and broke to land, the Phantoms split into single ships before holding off to allow the EF2000s to make the approach onto Runway 26.

The Phantoms then proceeded to make the most of their last minutes and beat up the airfield – hard. With flythroughs dropping down to extreme low altitude and at high speed on full reheat, the power of the Phantom could be felt for one last time.

Phinally, the three “support” aircraft landed and deployed braking parachutes. The last Phantom airborne could only be 3701 – First In, Last Out! In the capable hands of Lieutenant Colonel Berk and Colonel Gerhard Roubal, JG71s commander, 3701 gave what must have been the first, and last, Phantom display in several years. With that one final display, forty years of Phantom Operations came to an end at approximately 15:15 on Saturday 29th June 2013.

The Phantoms had one final display for the crowd, and taxied the entire length of the crowd line on the taxiway, and again on the runway before shutting down in unison at crowd centre. This was a very personal event for the crews, many of whom have been with the Phantom for some time, and so to be able to share the event them was both an honour and a privilege.

The End of the Spook

Whilst Jagdeschwader 71’s Phantom retirement marks the end of the Luftwaffe’s operational F-4F fleet, WTD-61’s two Phantoms will continue to fly until the end of July 2013 in the test role after which they too will be retired, and an era will come to an end.

JG71’s Phantoms have now all flown out to Jever for parting out and scrapping, leaving just 3701 at Wittmund Airbase for preservation (Wittmund town currently has 3814 preserved near the Barracks entrance, and “Red Baron” special 3703 preserved within the Barracks). The last JG71 Phantom flight occurred on 5th July 2013, and was flown by F-4F 3822 and 3833.

In the UK it’s unfortunately become more of a norm to see our aircraft retire from service gracefully but quietly, with little public fanfare. The Bundeswher however certainly know how to put on a show and, although it is saddening for the enthusiast (for the squadrons themselves, the feeling must be even more so) to see another F-4 operator cease flying, it cannot be said that the ‘Spook’ was laid to rest without the appropriate splendour, power and spectacle.

Phantoms never die – they only get Spookier!