Situated in Northern Germany, Wittmund is home to Jagdeschwader 71 ‘Richthofen’ and has flown the once ubiquitous McDonnell F-4F Phantom since 1974. Mark Kwiatkowski visited the last remaining McDonnell F-4 Phantom unit in the German Luftwaffe for AeroResource to see how the ‘Rhino’ was fairing in its last few months of service.
The unit was formed in June 1959, equipped with 50 Canadair Sabre Mk.6s and stationed at the former RAF Ahlhorn. The highest-scoring fighter pilot of all time, Erich Hartmann, flew the Canadair Sabre (reputedly his favorite fighter plane design), and aircraft such as the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, in the newly formed wing in the late 1950s.
On 21 April 1961, the 43rd anniversary of the death of “Red Baron” Rittmeister Manfred Von Richthofen, JG 71 was given the honorary title of “Richthofen” by Federal President Heinrich Lübke. In 1961, JG 71 transferred from Ahlhorn to Wittmund.
May 1963 saw the introduction of the first F-104 Starfighters into Luftwaffe service. In 1974 the Wing obtained its first F-4F Phantom II’s and on 19 September 1974 the unit’s Starfighters were decommissioned. In 1988 the Wing’s secondary role of Fighter Bomber Attack was given up so that JG 71 is now exclusively a Fighter Wing.
JG 71 is part of NATO’s Immediate Reaction Force, meaning that it must be ready to deploy 12 aircraft on five days’ notice. However, the likelihood of having to deploy at such short notice is almost nil, so the Phantoms are kept operational to fulfill Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) interceptions and provide training for future Eurofighter Typhoon pilots. JG 71 is sharing its QRA duties with JG 74, which completed Eurofighter conversion in late-2008. Depending on the situation, the dividing line between the two units is roughly Frankfurt-Berlin, with JG 71 protecting the northern part of Germany.
In 2007, for the second year running, JG 71 was German Air Force’s record-breaking fighter wing in terms of flying activity, clocking up over 7,600 flying hours. The unit is on 24/7 readiness to intercept unidentified aircraft over Germany. Between June and September 2008 the unit took part in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing. The unit participated in a Baltic Air Policing deployment from 1 November 2009. In June 2010 six of the unit’s F-4s were deployed to Iceland as part of NATOs Icelandic Air Policing mission.
In 2008 it was scheduled that starting with 2010 JG 71 will begin receiving its first Eurofighters. The wing would fly a mixed fleet for one or two years and by 2012 at the latest, the Phantom would be completely withdrawn from use. Although the Eurofighter is a multirole fighter aircraft, it seems likely that the JG71 will continue to carry out only air defense and interception duties that the JG71 will continue to carry out only air defense and interception duties.
Also based at Wittmund are a small fleet of A-4N Skyhawks. BAE Systems provides six A-4Ns as target tugs for the German Luftwaffe since 2001, replacing the F-100 Super Sabre. The Skyhawks are operated by the BAe subsidiary E.I.S. Aircraft GmbH at Wittmund. The A-4N’s are part of the 1991 contract with the Luftwaffe to supply visual target training for the F-4F Phantom and EF2000 Typhoon fighters. The A-4s are the unofficial 3rd Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 71 Richthofen.
Three days were set aside to visit Wittmund, two days outside the base with a day on base thanks to the spottersday that the JG71 had organised, over 1500 people had put their names down to attend the event!
Monday morning and the day started off at the 26 end of Wittmund’s runway. Having never been to Wittmund before but read up about where there were good spots to take photos from without a ladder we trudged off down a narrow country lane that would eventually lead out to a field that ran the length of the runway up to the mid-point. A mound off to our left would prove to be the perfect vantage point to see over the fence and have a clear view of the runway.
A quick climb up the steep bank of the mound, a decent spot was chosen and would be home for the next couple of hours. First thing that we could see was the Skyhawks that were parked on the other side of the runway. The good news was that they looked like they were getting ready to fly with pilots and ground crew around them. We didn’t have to wait very long before they were started up and taxied out for take-off. For such a small jet they are amazingly loud, and in some respects they actually seem louder than a Phantom!
Typically the JG71 flew two sorties every day, one in the morning around 10 am and the other at around 2 pm. And as 10 am ticked round the first of the F4’s taxied out. From there on in we had a steady amount of activity until lunchtime. Come 2 pm we had the next sortie lining up and departing. A typical sortie lasted about an hour so it wasn’t too long to wait for them to return.
Tuesday was spottersday. We were told that there would be some flying in the morning so we headed back to the same spot as Monday and catch the 10 am departures. Upon arrival we were told that the two QRA jets were up on their morning test flight and managed to catch them returning (complete with live AIM-9 sidewinders!). Morning sorties photographed it was back on the coach to head off on-base.
Once on base and parked up we were greeted with the site of Phantoms parked outside each of their Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), with no engine covers on giving them an operation “ready to fly” feel.
Despite there being over 1500 people, there was plenty of space for all and everyone was respectful and not getting in the way of others photos. A request was made if the canopies could be opened up on some of the aircraft, the request went one better and the canopies were opened on each aircraft for a few minutes along with the HAS doors. In total there were 12 aircraft out on display including one special schemed one marking the last ever inspection done on a Luftwaffe Phantom at the aircraft maintenance facility at Jever, as well as the 45th anniversary of the Luftwaffeninstandhaltungsgruppe 21 (LIG).
After the cloudy (and at times wet) Monday, the afternoon of the spottersday was warm sunshine along with some nice cloudscapes which provided the perfect backdrop when shooting the aircraft. I think it was safe to say that everyone came away very happy from a well organised event.
Wednesday dawned cloudy with the threat of rain, the wind direction had also changed to a South-East direction which meant the 08 end was in use but we opted to stay at the 26 end on the mound with the hope of catching some low departures. The 10 am sortie went up with one Phantom keeping it very low along the runway before pulling up, quite a sight. As the day went on the weather started to close in, come 2 pm we decided to call it day and retreat back to the coach.
A great three days spent at Wittmund and what could be the last time that I will get to see a German Phantom flying. A big thank you to Major Olaf Ring for organising and coordinating the JG71 Spottersday.