Two weeks ago I was resigned to the fact I’d already photographed my last German Luftwaffe F-4F Phantom II…. All that changed when, with just five days’ notice, an invitation was received from JG-71 to attend an event to welcome the ‘jubilee’ “FIRST IN, LAST OUT” specially-marked aircraft to Wittmund on its delivery flight from Jever, where it had been painted.
My initial thoughts were to fly into Bremen (about 75 minutes from Wittmund by road) with Ryanair on the Tuesday, do the event on Wednesday and then fly back that night. However, Ryanair wanted £257 for the return flight alone!
More digging revealed that Thursday was Ascension Day in Germany (and the Netherlands), so there wasn’t even any point planning to have an extra day outside the wire…
My GAR colleague Frank Grealish first mentioned the idea of flying into Amsterdam-Schiphol and driving up. It was a 300km drive, but the roads were motorways for about three quarters of that, and Google Maps reckoned it was doable in a little over three hours.
Looking at the flights now, and with an over-riding feeling of ‘unfinished business’ at Schiphol after my two previous visits, I decided that my plan of action would be to get the first easyJet flight out of Luton (0600) on Tuesday morning. From there, I could, in theory, be outside the wire at Wittmund around lunchtime and spend the afternoon – hopefully – catching a few Phantoms and some of the other interesting residents that live there. Wednesday, then, would be used to attend the media event before taking a drive back down to Schiphol for a further overnight stay. The bulk of Thursday would be spent outside the airport ahead of catching the last easyJet flight of the day back to Luton.
Pricing it up, it was just about viable on my own, however, Chris Wood (who flew out from Gatwick) only took minor persuasion before deciding to join me to share car hire and hotel costs, and let’s be honest, it’s always better to have someone else along for the ride!
So, we both landed at Schiphol on time on the morning of 7 May and met up in the baggage hall.
If you’re hiring a car from Schiphol Airport, do yourself a favour and use Thrifty. They are located off airport, and the shuttle bus can be a bit sporadic, but you will save yourself a fortune. Having been told that a new fence had been erected since I was last there in 2006, we decided to hire an estate car instead of a hatchback, with the intention being to buy some steps on our journey towards Wittmund.
As it transpired, and despite calling at a few hardware stores en-route, nowhere seemed to stock anything more substantial than two-steppers – even some pretty big outlets!
With time ticking by, we decided to bite the bullet and set direct course for Wittmund. The wind was favouring the eastern runway, and Woody directed me down a series of lanes and tracks to a spot next to the threshold. The fence was a good couple of feet higher than before, but the presence of a bank running perpendicular to the runway did at least mean that clear views over it could be achieved, or, in a worst case scenario, the fence could be shot through.
Two other cars were already present, and speaking to a Dutch guy who’d been there all day, it soon became clear that we’d missed a decent morning: four Phantoms, a Eurofighter EF2000 and a camo A-4 Skyhawk, all in glorious light…. One of the Phantoms and the EF2000 had flown a few practice flypasts ahead of the following day’s event. Would we be as lucky in the afternoon? We wouldn’t have too long to find out.
Unlike the morning, the runway seemed to be providing a demarcation line for a band of cloud that was pushing in from the south when we arrived. It would only get worse too. Typical!
Woody spotted a chap wearing a flying suit wandering around inside the perimeter towards our position. Logic dictated that he could be a good man to speak to, so we made our own way towards the fence! The first question after “Sprechen sie Englisch?” had been met with a positive response, was, naturally, “Will there be any flying this afternoon?” He confirmed that there would be, and in just ten minutes’ time too, but that it would only be a single Phantom. He did not know if the A-4s would be flying….
Sure enough, moments later, the sound of a pair of J-79 engines could be heard whirring into life from the other side of the runway. It was time to make a run for the cameras!
Not long after, the sight we’d all be waiting for, as the promised F-4F appeared on the taxi-track leading from the western HAS site. The only disappointment was that it was an all-grey jet and not one of the stunning retro schemes that JG-71 has applied in the run up to the type’s withdrawal from service.
After undergoing the final pre-flight checks, the aircraft made its way out on to the runway and powered up. I’d somehow managed to talk myself into standing in a bit of a rubbish position which meant I couldn’t actually get any shots of the aircraft in reheat! Doh!
Powering down the runway, the aircraft was kept low before gently climbing into the sky, with thick black smoke pouring from the exhausts.
At several points over the next hour, the aircraft could be seen – and heard – having fun in the overhead and surrounding area. As we waited for it to return, our attentions turned once again to our newly-found pilot friend, Zwock. It transpired that he was JG-71’s only current EF2000 pilot and it had been him who had flown the flypast practices that morning and indeed would be doing the same in the main event the next day. A former-Tornado pilot with JBG-31 at Nörvenich, Zwock had been on the last course to go through the Tornado Tri-National Training Establishment (TTTE) at RAF Cottesmore!
After a fair amount of Anglo/Dutch/Germanic banter, a trademark smoky trail appeared off the extended centreline, and the Phantom broke into the visual circuit for two approaches before landing. The light was grim but it was just nice to be in the presence of a living and breathing Phantom, albeit one whose last gasp will be taken in less than two months’ time.
Zwock, and our Dutch friend, bid us good day, while Woody retired to the car for forty winks. Despite the low expectations of what else the afternoon might offer, we sat it out until 1730. What else were we going to do? It came as no great surprise that our wait was unrewarded, aside from 38+28 being towed from the eastern end of the airfield.
Accommodation locally had either been out of budget or didn’t provide the option of a twin room, so we ended up about 15 miles from the western end of the runway in a very nice village called Leezdorf. None of the staff spoke English, and our German could only be described as very limited, but everything was handled in good humour. The two single rooms we’d booked actually ended up being two triple rooms, and for £26 per night, you simply could not go wrong!
After a very pleasant meal and a couple of beers in the restaurant downstairs, it was time to set the alarm, get some shut-eye and hope that the forecast for grey skies and rain would prove to be incorrect!
We’d heard that the two QRA Phantoms had launched at 0815 the previous morning, so we decided to make an early start, again sitting outside the wire at the western end. It was as grey as had been predicted, with moderate visibility, but, touch wood, there was no actual rainfall in the air. Unsurprisingly, nothing happened, and it was soon time for us to head to the main barracks, a few miles east, to register our arrival for the media event (71 enthusiasts had also had the opportunity to win a place on the airfield through the Phantom-Pharewell.de Facebook page).
There were a few familiar faces present, and it was great to meet Mike Kruiper, Michael de Boer and Peter Greengrass for the first time.
The opportunity arose to purchase a few JG-71 patches, which it would have been rude to turn down, before we all piled on to the three buses that had been laid on to take us back to the airfield proper.
Almost all of my pictures from the event itself feature in the news article we pushed soon afterwards, so please excuse the lack of unseen content here.
Before we could cross the runway to get to the designated viewing area on the southside, we were told that there would be the chance to shoot the EF2000, with Zwock at the contols, departing first. While it’s always nice to see a Eurofighter in reheat, the light was horrible and there was seemingly no way in the world that it was going to improve…
Back on to the bus and across the runway we went. Red and white tape marked out the enclosure we were to use and the assembled guests spread themselves out along its length. Still it was grey and horrible.
A handful of people were outside the fence and they seemed to have a pretty good handle on what was occurring, their movements up ladders providing an excellent indication of impending activity! The first of such cues came ahead of the arrival of one of the resident BAE Flight Systems A-4N Skyhawks, sadly in the white and blue scheme.
We didn’t have to wait too much longer before the three-ship formation comprising two Phantoms and the single EF2000 appeared in the distance, just beneath the cloud. Sadly, the pictures were pretty ugly, so it came as something of a surprise when, just nine minutes later, the Norm 72 retro-jet (38+10), having split away from the formation, landed with a few rays of sun on its back. Surely the unthinkable couldn’t happen, could it?
We’d been briefed to expect multiple touch and goes, so when the Jubilee jet (37+01) made what transpired to be its only low approach, I wasn’t really setup for it, disappointingly!
Zwock landed next, followed by the new special, and to be fair, the light could have been far worse. That said, as we walked back to the buses, the sun came out good and proper; just five minutes later and we would have been laughing….
Back on to the buses, we were taken across to the northside where 37+01 and 38+10 parked up alongside the Norm 81B retro-jet and 37+22, the aircraft we photographed outside the previous day. What ensued for the next few minutes was the proverbial bun fight, with it essentially impossible to get clean shots of the aircraft. Eventually, though, order was assumed and everybody could get what they wanted.
As you’ve hopefully read already, I had the chance to talk to the current Boss of JG-71, Colonel Gerhard Roubal about his job of seeing the Phantom out of service.
While I can’t be at the Phinale events in June, I’m sure everybody that is going will have a phantastic time. JG-71 are great hosts and are very clearly intent on making sure the aircraft goes out with bang!
With the event finishing a little earlier than we expected, we were able to hit the road and make a quick stop at the Aviodrome at Lelystad before closing time, but we’ll run a full article on the collection there at some point in the future, so my next blog entry from the trip will be from Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport.