On Wednesday 8 May 2013, Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen” invited members of the media and 71 lucky guests to join the Squadron at its Wittmund Air Base home to witness the arrival of the final specially painted Richthofen aircraft ahead of the F-4F Phantom II’s retirement from Luftwaffe service at the end of June.
The aircraft in question, 37+01, was the first of 175 F-4Fs to be delivered to the then West German Air Force in 1973. As such, the special blue and gold scheme that has been applied features “FIRST IN, LAST OUT” markings.
Applied at Wittmund’s neighbouring base of Jever, 37+01 returned home, resplendent in her new colours, in formation with fellow F-4F 38+10, itself carrying a stunning retro camouflage scheme known as “Norm 72”, and a Eurofighter EF2000 – the type set to replace the F-4F in the air policing role.
Sadly, the weather for the occasion was far from perfect, although it did start to break as the aircraft split into individual elements for recovery, with 37+01 making an additional low approach and go around.
Typically, within moments of the final recovery the sun broke free from its shackles.
37+01 and 38+10 taxied back and shut down on the apron flanked by 37+22 in the current all grey scheme and 38+33 in the retro “Norm 81B” colours. Also present, but offset from the Phantoms, was the EF2000, already carrying JG-71’s trademark red ‘R’ insignia beneath the canopy – albeit with a JG-74 badge on the tail – which had taken part in the formation.
I asked Colonel Gerhard Roubal (right), wing commander of Fighter Wing 71, what it was like to be the man charged with seeing the universally-adored Phantom out of German Air Force service:
“It’s actually quite a sad feeling. I’ve flown the Phantom for 25 years now and have almost 2,500 flying hours on the system. And now we come into the final two months of service, I have lots of emotions.
“I remember the time when I started back in ’87 with the F-4, and lots of things have changed. We have upgraded the system: we have quite capable radar, quite a capable weapons system with the gun, the Sidewinder and the AMRAAM missile – it’s just missing a datalink system. It could have gone on for many more years, but it’s not very efficient and it’s time for a change.
“When the end comes, you have to look back. You have to look forward, always – we already have the Eurofighter flying with us – but actually everybody is looking backward right now, thinking about the time that was and trying to bid farewell to the F-4 with a big event.”
The big event Colonel Roubal talks about comes over the period 28-30 June when JG-71 will host a “Phantom Phinale” spotters day, among other proceedings, and will ‘phlyout’ the remaining Phantoms to Jever AB for the final time.
In the short-term, JG-71 will lose its wing status, as Colonel Roubal explains:
“We go down to a group, so you lose the colonel as the wing commander and go down to lieutenant-colonel level. He will report to the commander of Tactical Fighter Wing (Jagdbombergeschwader) 31 “Boelcke” in Nörvenich Air Base near Cologne.
“We’ll operate the QRA from here, as we did for the last 40 years with the Phantom, and we start out with nine Eurofighters, but for this year it will only be QRA. We will slowly upgrade the airfield infrastructure over the next few years and then we go to our full group level with 20 Eurofighters. We have done a lot to the airfield over the last few years but we’re adopting a crawl, walk, run process.
“In the future, maybe we will get the full wing status back. There are options that have to be planned out covering a period of the next ten to 15 years.”
In the coming months we will take an extensive look back at the Phantom’s service with the Luftwaffe, fly alongside them as they undertake an air-to-air refuelling mission with a KC-135R from the 100th ARW, as well as reporting from those ‘Phinale’ events.
Global Aviation Resource extends sincere thanks to Colonel Roubal and all at Fighter Wing 71 for their hospitality.