It is never easy saying goodbye. Some struggle to find the right words to say, while others embrace and share memories of their shared history.
Spangdahlem Air Base is saying goodbye to a dear friend after 40 years. Effective June 18, 2013, the 81st Fighter Squadron will inactivate after more than 70 years of faithful service to a star-spangled nation.
Its multiple deployments and achievements over the last 20 years alone speak volumes of the legacy the Panthers will leave behind at Spangdahlem.
The decision to inactivate the 81st came with the Department of Defense’s resolution to cut almost $500 billion from the defense budget over the next 10 years. Five A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft squadrons across the Air Force, including Air National Guard and reserve units, were told to close up shop. The 81st is the final A-10 squadron in Europe, and with its inactivation, all that will be left of the Panthers legacy is the Airmen who were a part of it.
Although most of the people who now live and work on Spangdahlem only know the 81st as it is flying the A-10, the squadron flew numerous aircraft and called more than one base home during its tenured career.
Its roots are traced back to 1942, when it was activated during World War II. The U.S. Army Air Corps assigned the P-40 Warhawk to the 81st, and they were quickly transferred to Orlando Army Air Field, Fla., to test equipment and procedures to make combat overseas more successful. The 81st relocated down the road to Cross City AAF to prepare for deployment to England and train for war.
Just before they finally shipped out for England, the 81st received the P-47 Thunderbolt, and in April 1944, they relocated to the 9th Air Force and immediately got to work, flying hundreds of fighter escort, close air support and interdiction missions. The 81st also supported the D-Day invasion and closely supported Allied advances into France.
A P-47 Thunderbolt formation
After the war in 1945, the 81st inactivated, and after a short stint of unemployment, reactivated in 1947. Between 1947 and 1953 they trained on the F-51 Mustang before accepting the newest edition to the Air Force fighter line-up, the F-86 Sabre. The squadron packed their bags in August 1953 and headed for their new home across the Atlantic Ocean to Hahn Air Base, Germany.
There, they served under the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing, and stood ready to defend West Germany against potential Soviet attack. The U.S. Air Force stood up bases along the Rhine River as a defense against a possible Soviet invasion of western Europe during the Cold War.
After a short three years at Hahn, the 81st moved once again in 1956, this time to Toul Rosieres Air Base, France. The move was tactical in nature, since it provided a little extra distance from the threat, yet still close enough to respond in a timely nature. The Panthers also traded in their F-86 aircraft for the faster and more capable F-100 Super Sabre shortly after arriving in France.
However, disagreements over munitions storage and use in France led to the removal of all U.S. alert units from France. The 81st was on the move once again, and returned to Hahn to continue their mission.
For the first time in their 20 years of existencethe 81st was able to settle down and not worry about packing the squadron and relocate. From 1959 to 1971, they enjoyed the consistency of living in the little German town of Hahn.
Hahn Air Base from overhead. (File photo)
Of course, Hahn AB had issues of its own as its young fighter pilots vigilantly sat on alert in the Hunsrueck mountains just south of Spangdahlem.
Retired Maj. Gen. Lee Downer, who was an 81st pilot at Hahn, explains some of the challenges the pilots faced on a daily basis.
“If there ever was a one phrase description for Hahn Air Base, it was that it had, with little argument, the “worst weather of any operational Air Force fighter base.” Bar room tales at officers’ clubs around the Air Force were full of wild anecdotes about the less than ideal weather at this little base.
Without doubt, the typically lousy weather in the Hunsrueck mountains of Germany was enough to scare the most fearless F-86, F-100 or F-102 pilot. The winter months brought 18 hours of darkness and weeks of thick, icy fog. There were many days when the air-to-air training areas were totally clear, the low-level routes workable and the bombing ranges open, but Hahn’s mountain top was covered with dark gray fog. Even if pilots could take off, the prospect of returning to home base was slim.
However, there were always those incredible days when the fog deck was 500 feet lower. Perfect flying weather, but alas, we still couldn’t fly because the U.S. Air Forces in Europe regulations required dual alternates, at least 50 miles apart. Many years of experience cautioned that the fog deck could rise without warning, or someone might have to snag the approach end cable, closing the runway at a most inconvenient time.
Typically when this weather anomaly occurred, the closest legal alternate airfield was in England or in Southern Bavaria, which meant that you could take off, climb to altitude, do one air-to-air combat event and be at Bingo fuel, requiring an immediate return to base.
The only precision approach aid at Hahn was the venerable ground control approach, which gave comfort to thousands of pilots hoping to get home on dark, snowy and foggy nights. Luckily, Bitburg and Spangdahlem Air Bases were minutes north, with better weather when fuel became a concern. Many Hahn pilots spent unplanned evenings in the visiting officers’ quarters across the Mosel River waiting for home plate to clear.
When the F-4 Phantom IIs arrived at Hahn in 1966, the new factor was the back-seater, initially pilots, but later navigators. The GCA was still the approach of choice, but now two people could argue over each decision. The on-board radar offered some confidence building, but the comforting voice of the GCA final controller was really the key to success. Regardless of the aircraft, the weather was still terrible. Then, in 1969, the 81st turned in its D models for C model Wild Weasel aircraft. This mission change brought a totally new bunch of pilots, and electronic warfare officers, mostly fresh from Southeast Asia or fair weather stateside bases, to face the historically-poor Hahn weather.
Coincidently, in 1969, the Air Force decided to do something about the weather. Project Cold Flake was dreamed up and put into operation during the winter of 1970, a particularly bad one. The thought was if we could modify the weather in a consistent way, it would allow the pilots at Hahn to get more training from home base during the winter months.
Since the 1950s, Hahn pilots had deployed to Wheelus Air Base in Libya during the winter months, where the weather was much closer to that in Arizona. Unfortunately, when Muammar Gaddafi led a revolution to get rid of King Idris, he also got rid of us, permanently closing the base to U.S. forces. The innovation of weather modification “technology” arrived just in time to provide a potential solution. Thankfully, even though we didn’t know it, the AF was already in negotiations with Spain for use of Zaragoza Air Base, a more than suitable substitute.
The way Cold Flake worked was fairly simple. Specially equipped C-130s would launch from Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, loaded with dry ice pellets or silver iodide that would cause freezing fog to precipitate as snow. When conditions were right, the C-130, flying high above the fog, would dispense the material for a mile or so. The fog underneath would disappear for a period of time, opening up a clear lane that would move with the wind. If the setup was good, the lane would drift over the runway before the clear space would return to fog. The result when the lane arrived over the air base was a few minutes of blue sky and sunshine–from less than 100 feet ceiling and almost no visibility to totally clear.
The F-4 era pilots from the 81st at Hahn
To get in sync with the process, our flights would crank up, taxi to the runway, go through pre-take off inspection (quick check) and wait. As the lane of clear weather approached, the tower would clear the flight onto the runway. The flight would position on the runway and wait until the sky became blue when they would launch.
Recoveries worked in a similar way. Aircraft would be cleared for approach. If the lane was over the runway when reaching minimums, the tower would clear it for landing. If not, a go-around was initiated and the aircrew would set up for another approach. That would go on until divert fuel was reached. Some guys were lucky, getting home for dinner, while others made many unplanned cross-countries to Bit, Spang or Ramstein.
However, the inevitable flies-in-the-ointment occurred from the very beginning. First, getting the C-130 to accurately align the lanes with the runway, properly corrected for wind, was more problematic than the planners thought. Second, the wind was not all that predictable, so a lot of lanes either rushed by or stalled out somewhere other than the runway. Third, the process was very sensitive to dew point and temperature, so on some days the C-130 would dump a lot of stuff with little or no effect on the fog. Finally, the precipitated snow was very sticky and granular. It unnaturally adhered to any surface that it landed on.
Pilots from the 81st
If the genetically altered snow inadvertently fell on the runway, it was like spraying the surface with greasy ice, not good on a 8,000 feet long, 75 feet wide NATO standard runway that was prone to ice-up anyway. More importantly, the area around the base began to experience an unusual rash of downed trees, powerline breaks, and barn collapses due to the mysterious snow. Local roads were more treacherous than normal, causing a record number of wrecks and snowfall amounts in some areas around the base spiked upwards.
But did it work? Yep! During the fall of 1969 and winter of 1970, all squadron pilots and EWOs got trained and certified to combat-ready status, ensuring that the 81st remained mission ready in our primary designated operational capabilities through the simultaneous transition to the Wild Weasel task.
The next winter, temperatures rarely hit the magic freezing marks so Hahn flew a record number of flights without the help of this technology. Of course the weapons training deployments in Spain made a huge contribution. Overall, Cold Flake was deemed a failure in Europe and returned to the drawing board.
In the 1980s, F-16s replaced the F-4s. Even though it was back to single-seat aircraft flying in the AF’s worst weather, the instrument landing system, and later GPS navigation, gave pilots a much better way to beat Hahn’s winter.”
The 81st moves to Zweibruecken Air Base, Germany
The 81st endured the harsh winter of 1970 and finally received orders to move again. It was June 1971 when they arrived at Zweibruecken Air Base, filling a position that Canadian forces once held until their withdrawal. This was the last time the 81st would be at Hahn, although their parent wing that they had been a part of since coming to Europe, the 50th Fighter-Bomber Wing, would remain at Hahn until the base’s closure in 1991.
The 81st moves to Spangdahlem
Finally, the 81st relocated to Spangdahlem in 1973, where it became part of the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing. Its new role was the Wild Weasel mission, and was the only NATO asset equipped to accomplish this task. The 81st shared the base with two other fighter squadrons, the 480th and the 23rd.
The F-4 Shake-Up
Rivalry is seemingly synonymous with fighter pilot culture, as each squadron proudly boasts themselves as better than the other.
Imagine Spangdahlem as three separate fighter squadrons, with each squadron touting an arsenal of aircraft, but all of the aircraft are basically identical in looks and capabilities.
The 81st, being the only Wild Weasel squadron in Europe, was written into every contingency plan for NATO, and was responsible for enemy air defense suppression for the entire inter-German border, said retired Col. Jim Uken, who was stationed at Spangdahlem as the situation unfolded.
An 81st Fighter Squadron F-4 flying over the Mosel River
“[West] Germany was divided into two regions: the 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force in the north, and the 4th ATAF in the south,” he said.
It was clear that one Wild Weasel squadron was not enough to support the mission, so in 1983, it was determined that the 52nd was to be a defense suppression wing.
This meant that the current mix of E and G model F-4s would have to be distributed evenly among the three squadrons, as well as the pilots, since the E and G pilots had completely different missions.
Tommy Ticktin, the 81st commander at the time, recalled the methodology they used to decided “who got what.”
“Once the decision was made to build F-4 Phantom E-model/G-model squadrons, one of the challenges was to determine the personnel make up for each squadron. Not just in the abstract – electronic warfare officer/weapons systems officer mix, instructors, ops officers, flight commanders, etc. – but specific names as well: squadron rosters for each of the squadrons. The director of operations handed that responsibility to me and my counterparts: Mike Nix, the commander of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at the time, and John Adler, the 480th TFS commander.
I’ve been asked on more than one occasion how we went about it and very few people have believed what I told them. But, this is how it happened. First of all, only the squadron commanders were exempt; they would stay in place. I was on my second squadron and really wasn’t anxious to do it again. Plus, the 81st had the nicest building.
Other than that, from ops officers on down, everyone’s name was in the hat. Our first thought was to do it like the NFL draft; decide who would pick first, second, and third then just go around the table making picks until everyone was gone. The down side to that was, if the methodology leaked out, there could be some hurt feelings among those who weren’t selected as keepers by their current commander. So, being the true leaders we were, we decided to wash our hands of it and let a computer do it. In the end, I think we ended up with three pretty good groups.
At this point, we had three squadron rosters but it still remained to attach a squadron patch to the top of each roster. The new lineups were to be released on Friday afternoon right after the Officers’ Call. John, Mike, and I met at the 81st about an hour prior to OC to choose which group we each wanted. At this point, we still had to decide who would pick first, second, and third.
We were all fighter pilots, so I only knew one way to do it. We went to the squadron bar and grabbed a Bitburger. I picked up a dice cup and we went back to my office. We played “horses” for it. Adler won and picked first. Mike beat me for second so I got what was left (which, by the way, was the group I would have picked had I gone first).
When all was said and done, I firmly believe to this day that the 81st ended up with the best of the bunch. But about 40 years ago the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing was realigned with a roll of the dice.”
Of course, that was the viewpoint from a squadron commander. GT Tovrea, who served as an electronic warfare officer, was early in his career when he found himself in the middle of the change:
“I remember it from a lowly captain new-guy perch, and had only been at Spangdahlem for about six months. The way I recall it, the big idea was to force-multiply for the suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) mission by forming hunter-killer arrangements in each of three squadrons.
In my mind’s eye this happened at an all-hands call, and it was the Friday before Thanksgiving. We had the meeting at the O’Club, where wing leadership went through some philosophy and rules of engagement, then all in attendance rushed to the wall where the new squadron rosters were tacked up. Suddenly, everyone had new best friends, and it was to the bar for Bits and Grolsch’s for sure.
The next three days before Thanksgiving were down days expressly created for homemade cross-training academics so everyone learned about mission- and aircraft-specific configurations and exceptions as required. Then on Monday after Thanksgiving, it was greaseboards as normal, and off we went for five-ride checkouts in our new jets. By Christmas everyone was more or less universal.
At any rate, it was a great event, and it’s kind of nostalgic and quaint to think how simple and straightforward that it all was.”
An Odd Couple
The 81st continued its Wild Weasel mission until it received the A-10 in 1994, but one of the most interesting aircraft swaps happened in 1987, when the squadron received F-16 Fighting Falcons to replace the aging F-4Es. It became the first and only squadron in the Air Force to-date to fly two different aircraft in the same combat element.
The 81st Hunter/Killer team, equipped with the F-4 Phantom and F-16 Fighting Falcon
The F-4 and F-16 pilots worked hand-in-hand as one of the only hunter/killer teams in Europe.
By 1993, all of the F-16s had been transferred to the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron and the 81st was again a single aircraft squadron.
The 81st deployed to the Middle East in 1990, where they flew more than 25,000 combat hours over Iraq and were credited with 113 radar kills.
Sabers wave American flags as F-4s from the 81st return after Desert Storm
Spang gets the A-10s
In 1994, the 81st once again experienced change. The 510th Fighter Squadron transferred to Spangdahlem from RAF Bentwaters, England, and brought with them the A-10 Thunerbolt II attack aircraft. The Air Force decided to transition away from the F-4 squadrons at Spangdahlem. This meant that the plane the 81st flew for the last 28 years would go away, along with the the pilots who were assigned to the squadron.
The 81st Fighter Squadron flying the F-4 for the last time. Painted on the plane is “Phantom Pharewell,” recognizing the last of the F-4s.
Danno Swanson, who served in numerous positions during his time at Spangdahlem, shared his experience with rebuilding the 81st with a new airframe.
“When I got to Spangdahlem, there was only swamp… not entirely true, but building the 510th, which later became the 81st, was not a pleasant experience. We were in what is now the equipment maintenance squadron building. It was small, unfinished and had no secure storage at first (the vault was built relatively quickly). The F-15s were also moving to Spang from Bitburg about that time and the base was going crazy trying to find places for everyone–squadron buildings, aircraft parking, etc. The initial cadre of A-10 pilots consisted of the transfers from Royal Air Force Bentwaters in England and the instructor pilots from the U.S. and other worldwide bases.
We initially worked out of one small room, which we dubbed “The Petri Dish.” It was late fall 1992 and everybody was passing around the same viruses and colds for weeks. We were also desperate for housing. Since the base was expanding, it was no longer a case of “one guy leaves and the new guy gets his house.” The modus operondi was that anyone finding a house kept that information confidential so that nobody knew until they had signed a lease, or otherwise, you risked getting outmaneuvered or outbid on the house you had found for rent. The housing situation was the only thing worse than the weather in the winter of ’92.
The A-10 flying in formation with F-16s from the 22nd Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Squadron, and the 52nd Fighter Wing flagship
We generated up and started flying sorties by January 1993 with six aircraft. Since the weather was Euro-standard, only instructor pilots and Bentwaters legacy pilots, who had the theater checkout, could fly. It became a feast/famine thing for about three months, with the Swedish Mafia – “Vegas” Carlson, “Stump” Johnson, “Chuckles” Peterson and myself – flying the bulk of the sorties as instructors. Just staying current was a chore. We had our full complement of aircraft and had most of our training programs up and running by that spring.
In the summer of 1993, we were tasked to deploy to Aviano Air Base, Italy, within 24 hours. This became the beginning of the operation which would consume the bulk of the squadron’s time and resources through the end of my tour in Dec 1995 — Operation Deny Flight, which we dubbed Operation Provide Pasta. Along with the F-16s from Ramstein, we were the first units to bed down at Aviano for the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict.
The 81st while deployed to Aviano Air Base, Italy, during Operation Deny Flight in 1994
We flew a 6-on, 2-off schedule for most of Deny Flight. Almost every pilot in the squadron was on temporary duty to Aviano or other deployments over 200 days a year from 1993-1996.
I have many great memories of an outstanding group of aviators whom I was damned proud and honored to serve alongside in the 510th/81st Fighter Squadron.”
–Danno “Jack” Swanson
The 81st deployed again to Italy, but this time in support of Operation Allied Force, in which NATO bombed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The 81st flew more than 1,400 combat missions and were credited with two successful combat search and rescue operations, one of which including the rescue of U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Goldfein, the current commander of U.S. Air Forces Central.
The 81st during Operation Allied Force
A new millennium
The year 2000 started with more excitement for the 81st, as they once again packed their bags and flew to Southwest Asia as part of Operation Southern Watch, which enforced a no-fly zone over Iraqi airspace.
The 81st was also tasked with multiple deployments to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, starting in 2003, then in 2004, 2006, 2008, and again in 2010.
Spangdahlem’s A-10s in Afghanistan, 2008
During these deployments, the pilots of the 81st provided close air support for American and NATO International Security Assistance Forces on the ground.
In 2010 alone, the 81st flew over 2,100 combat sorties and fired over 70,000 rounds of 30mm ammo in support of troops in contact on the ground.
Deployments weren’t the only things drawing the Panthers away from Spangdahlem. The squadron frequently deployed to other European countries as part of the wing and USAFE’s commitment to building up the air forces of partner nations. Places like Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Portugal were commonplace trips, where both the maintainers and pilots practiced operating in a fast-paced environment and train up other countries to increase interoperability.
It was early 2012 when the rumors started to spread about the 81st inactivating. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III, who was then the USAFE commander, announced that the 81st had indeed been selected to stand down, along with a number of other units in Europe and 17th Air Force, the Air Force component for operations in Africa.
Welsh said, “Dealing with the same challenges on a global scale, the Department of Defense recently concluded a thorough review of our defense strategy and has begun a transition to a new approach that emphasizes future challenges, supports federal deficit reduction, and accounts for the declining costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operating within constrained budgets is simply a reality.”
Among these constrained budgets, the 81st was on the chopping block, along with four other A-10 squadrons across the Air Force.
Although this was disheartening news for many, it didn’t phase the Panthers. There were still sorties to be flown, partnerships to nurture, and missions to complete.
The last European exercise
Aircraft and military professionals from the U.S., Portugal, Netherlands, the U.K. and NATO are continuing to develop their ability to work together during REAL THAW 13.
REAL THAW is the Portuguese military’s premiere annual exercise that integrates the Portuguese Army, Navy and Air Force for joint operations and scenarios. The exercise also includes forces from partner nations.
The 81st Fighter Squadron, out of Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, is one of the U.S. representatives in Portugal. Their airframe, the A-10 Thunderbolt II, is the only close air support aircraft participating this year, and the Portuguese military is taking full advantage of its capabilities, since this is their last chance to work with other NATO nations before their inactivation this summer.
The pilots prepare for flight
REAL THAW helps keep pilots combat-ready for any sort of contingency mission. They trained with the Portuguese military on scenarios like combat search and rescue, close air support, convoy escort and forward air control. It also gives the 81st Fighter Squadron an opportunity to build partnership with the Portuguese military and other NATO allies.
Being part of an exercise of this size and importance also gives the maintainers–who have kept these jets in the air through a myriad of exercises, deployments and contingency operations–a chance to reminisce on their time as part of the 81st.
Each maintainer has something different to say about why they love the A-10. For some, it’s the aircraft’s capabilities. For others, it is the ease of maintenance involved with it.
Working on the A-10 in Portugal
“It’s like working on an old car,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kyle Ring, an 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief from Modesto, Calif. “There are no computers or anything that make it complicated. It’s just hands-on maintenance–getting in there and doing it.”
Most of its parts are interchangeable, and the maintainers don’t need lavish facilities to service the jets.
Everyone brings a special skill to the aircraft. Jet engine mechanics, avionics technicians, crew chiefs and weapons members all work together to deliver firepower to where it’s most needed.
When the A-10s fired their last rounds on the range in Portugal, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Sisneros seemed conflicted. His face beamed with satisfaction as he walked around the GAU-8 Avenger 30mm Gatling gun, but pensive sadness intensified in his eyes. “The Hog” fired 1,050 30mm rounds on the range, and the smoke-covered casings still sat in the cage.
The GAU-8 Avenger
It’s been six years since Sisneros first started working on the A-10 as a weapons load team member. He’s now the team chief and oversees his Airmen as they inspect the gun that he’s grown to love.
“This gun is my baby,” said Sisneros. As the team chief, he is responsible for loading bombs as well, but has a special admiration for the gun, which can unleash 3,900 rounds a minute and punch holes in tanks and armored vehicles like a can opener puncturing a can of tuna.
Although there have been a few upgrades throughout the years, the most recent “C” upgrade in 2009 brought about a plethora of new technology, including GPS-guided munitions, multi-function color displays, and Situational Awareness Data Link capability, which allows aircraft to transfer information electronically between each other and with joint terminal air controllers on the ground.
Preparing an A-10 for flight
“I love this plane. It’s amazing. It’s the only plane that can do air-to-ground combat like it does,” said Ring, who has spent four years working on “the Hog” in all types of weather, from the blistering heat in Arizona to below-freezing ice storms in Germany.
Wherever the 81st goes in Europe, whether it is the Czech Republic, Romania or Portugal, the A-10 always seems to draw attention.
“You get a real appreciation for your job when people come out and want to learn about your aircraft, because there really is nothing like it anywhere else in the world,” said Sisneros.
Many of these maintenance professionals will work together in the future, since the number of places they can go is now narrowed to a few bases.
“It’s a really small community, and the best part of the job is working with great people,” said U.S. Airman 1st Class Fernando Sorto, 81st Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief from Plano, Texas.
As the squadron returned from Portugal, the inactivation process quickly became a reality. Aircraft began leaving Spangdahlem a few at a time. Pilots left for their new duty stations. The heritage room that was once vibrant and filled with mementos from throughout the years slowly emptied.
When the final four A-10s left Spangdahlem, friends and family members of the squadron came out to show their support and wave farewell as the jets took off for their new home at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
Saying farewell to the last A-10s at Spangdahlem
“As the world has changed, so has the demand for regional forces,” said Lt. Col. Clint Eichelberger, 81stFS commander. “At one time there were six squadrons of A-10s in Europe with over 140 aircraft and tens of thousands of Cold War ground forces preparing for battle. Today, the climate has changed in this part of the world, and so has the need for conventional forces like the A-10.”
Eichelberger said that instead of focusing on the somber nature of a squadron’s inactivation, today’s Airmen should use this historic milestone as a way to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of the 81st and the spirit and enthusiasm that has carried the squadron through decades of change.
“Saying farewell to the 81st makes today a sad day, but it is just another chapter in the life of a fighter squadron,” he said. “But it doesn’t stop here; the guys that are going to go on to fly the Thunderbolt are going to continue to perform that mission and continue to train to provide the support that the ground forces need.”
Eichelberger, right, and Col. David Lyons, 52nd Operations Group commander, retire the 81st guidon at the inactivation ceremony June 18, 2013