Bitburg Air Base
|Located near Bitburg, Germany|
|Type||Air Force Base|
|Controlled by||United States Air Force|
|Garrison||36th Fighter Wing|
- For the civil airport use of this facility after 1994, see Bitburg Airport
Bitburg Air Base (1952–1994, former ICAO EDAB) was a front-line NATO base during the Cold War. It is located 2 miles (3 km) southeast of Bitburg, 20 miles (32 km) north of Trier, and 135 miles (217 km) west of Wiesbaden.
It was the official home of the United States Air Force 36th Fighter Wing for over 40 years as part of the United States Air Forces in Europe. It was turned over to the German government on 1 October 1994.
Under contract with the United States Air Force, the French Army began construction of what would become Bitburg Air Base in Western Germany's Eifel Mountains in Rhineland-Palatinate in early 1951. Located in the French zone of occupation, the air base was situated on farm land that had been a Wehrmacht tank staging and supply area for the Battle of the Bulge in early 1944.
The air base and its housing area occupied nearly 1,100 acres (445 ha), with a 8,200-foot (2,500 m) long runway (with 1,000-foot (300 m) overruns at each end, total length would be 10,200 ft).
Bitburg Airbase was where Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, served as a Flight commander in the 22nd TFS; US President Ronald Reagan also has some connection to the base during the 1950s.
36th Fighter Wing
In July 1952 the 53rd Fighter-Bomber Squadron (FBS) from the 36th Fighter-Bomber Wing (FBW), from Fürstenfeldbruck Air Base a few miles west of Munich arrived at the newly built base. Throughout the summer, elements of the 36th FBW moved into Bitburg, with the wing officially arriving in November 1952. Under various designations, the 36th would remain at Bitburg for the next 40 years.
With its arrival the 36th FBW was equipped with the Republic F-84E "Thunderjet". Operational squadrons were:
- 22d Fighter-Bomber Squadron (Red motif)
- 23d Fighter-Bomber Squadron (Blue motif)
- 53d Fighter-Bomber Squadron (Green motif)
In August 1953, the North American F-86F "Sabre" was introduced to the wing, replacing the F-84s. In August 1954, the wing was redesignated as the 36th Fighter-Day Wing. After transitioning to the Sabre the 36th TFW added two new squadrons, the 32d Fighter Day Squadron from Soesterberg Air Base in the Netherlands, and the 461st Fighter Day Squadron from Hahn Air Base. At first the 36th's F-86 markings consisted of Korean Theater-styled yellow and black-bordered bands, but squadron-specific colored bands were eventually applied to all the 36th FDW Sabres.
First USAF Operational Missile Squadron
The 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron, equipped with the B-61A Matador, was assigned to the 36th Fighter Bomber Wing, Bitburg Air Base, Germany, on 31 March 1954, making it the first operational U.S. missile unit.
The 36th Fighter Bomber Wing was renamed 36th Fighter Day Wing (no change of station) a year later on 14 March 1955, and the 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron was renamed to the 1st Tactical Missile Squadron at that time. The B-61A Matador was renumbered to the TM-61A Matador.
The 1st Tactical Missile Squadron was detached from the 36th FDW, no change of station, and assigned to the newly formed 7382nd Pilotless Bomber Group headquartered at Hahn Air Base, on February 1, 1956. The 1st PBS remained at Bitburg Air Base.
The 7382nd Tactical Missile Group was inactivated on 15 September 1956, and the 1st Tactical Missile Squadron was reassigned to the newly formed 585th Tactical Missile Group, Bitburg Air Base, as part of the newly formed 701st Tactical Missile Wing, headquartered at Hahn AB. The 1st PBS became the 1st Tactical Missile Squadron, and was later redesignated as the 71st TMS. The unit converted from the TM-61A to the TM-61C Matadors during that time. The Matadors were operational at Bitburg until 1962 when replaced by the newer CGM-13B (TM-76B) Mace missile which were held in underground launch bays at sites near Rittersdorf and Idenheim.
The 71st Tactical Missile Squadron was also the last operational missile squadron in USAFE when it was inactivated April 30, 1969, ending 15 consecutive years of operational tactical missile duty at Bitburg.
In 1956, the wing received the North American F-100 "Super Sabre," marking the first time a wing in USAFE flew supersonic jets. One of the F-100 pilots was future Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who served as a flight commander at Bitburg Air Base, Germany in the 22nd Fighter Squadron. Squadron-specific colored bands were applied to the tail fins of the F-100s, with five tail stripes for the wing commander's aircraft. On 15 May 1958, the 36th FDW was redesignated as the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), with its squadrons redesignated as Tactical Fighter Squadrons, because its missions had now grown to include delivery of tactical nuclear weapons under NCA and SACEUR direction.
525th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron
In January 1959 the 86th Air Division at Ramstein Air Base assigned the 525th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron to Bitburg flying the F-102A/TF-102A Delta Dagger. The 525th FIS became the first European-based F-102 squadron when it received its first aircraft (TF-102Bs) on 3 January 1959. The mission of the 525th was to confront Soviet fighter aircraft over the skies of Western Europe and operated under the USAFE 86th Air Division (Defense) at Ramstein Air Base West Germany on 1 July 1960. This transfer was made in order that all USAF fighter assets in Europe could be concentrated in one command. The F-102As were identified by blue stripes on their tails.
The 525th FIS operated F-102s until December 1969 when it transitioned to a Tactical Fighter Squadron flying F-4Es.
In November 1959, the 36th was assigned to Seventeenth Air Force. In May1961, the wing received the Republic F-105 "Thunderchief". Formal USAFE acceptance of the Mach 2 fighter-bombers was held at the Paris Air Show on 3 June 1961. Deliveries of the F-105D model were completed in 1963, and the 36th carried on its Cold War mission of tactical nuclear weapons delivery.
The first of the wing's 2-place F-105Fs arrived in March 1964, and all were on base by the end of the year. The F-105Fs performed the same roles and missions as the single-seat D models, except they provided for training new pilots in the thud's characteristics. The F-105s in Europe were specifically designed for the nuclear strike role, with the primary armament being a "special store" (a euphemism for a nuclear weapon) housed in the Thud's bomb bay. This weapon was usually a Mk 28 or a Mk 43 nuclear weapon. However, a Mk 61 store could be carried underneath the left or right inboard underwing pylon and a Mk 57 or a Mk 61 store could be carried underneath the centerline pylon. However, as nuclear conflict became less and less likely in the European theater, the nuclear weapon carried in the bomb bay was usually replaced by a 390-gallon internal fuel tank, the offensive load being carried on four underwing pylons and/or on a pylon mounted underneath the fuselage on the centerline (attached to the bomb bay doors).
By 1966 the Thud was being phased out of NATO, being replaced by the McDonnell F-4D "Phantom II". By December 1966, all the 36th TFW Thuds had been ferried Stateside for combat crew training duties at McConnell AFB, Kansas, or on to warfighting glory in SEA after stateside refurbishment.
During November 1968 the F-102s of the 86th AD were sent to Air National Guard units at CONUS and the 525th FIS was re-equipped with F-4Es and assigned to the 36th TFW. In 1969, the 23rd TFS left the 36th TFW and moved to the new 52nd TFW at neighboring Spangdahlem Air Base. In 1970 the Tail Code concept was established, with the following squadron insignia: 22d TFS "BR", 53d TFS "BT" and the 525th "BU". The 36th would continue to fly the F-4 until 1977, and all Bitburg tail codes were eventually streamlined to read "BT", and the aircraft's squadron was then identified by a color band tail flash.
On 4 January 1969 the 39th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron from Shaw AFB South Carolina was activated at Spangdahlem Air Base and assigned to the 36th TFW. The 39th TEWS flew the Douglas EB-66C/E "Destroyer" aircraft which engaged in various forms of electronic warfare. The B-66s were identified with tail code "BV", with a black stripe on tail.
In August 1972, the 52d TFW was activated at Spangdahlem AB. With this activation, the 39th TEWS and the 23d TFS were transferred to the 52d TFW. In September, the F-4Ds were replaced with the F-4E model with its upgraded avionics, maneuvering wing slats and an M61A1 cannon, giving the Phantom II more complete air-to-air capabilities. The markings of the 36th TFW aircraft were also standardized with tail code "BT".
The operational squadrons of the 36th TFW in 1973 were:
- 22d Tactical Fighter Squadron (Stingers: red tail stripe)
- 53d Tactical Fighter Squadron (Tigers: yellow tail stripe)
- 525th Tactical Fighter Squadron (Bulldogs: blue tail stripe)
By 1976 a major modernization of USAFE was necessary. The Soviet Union's new MiG and Sukhoi fighters made NATO military planners anxious. Indeed, intelligence reports about the MiG-25 left little room for comfort; the apparent performance of this new Russian combat aircraft was assessed to be far superior to any NATO aircraft. The twin-engined MiG-25 could reach speeds of over 3,000 km/h at high altitude (over 70,000 ft), and it could be armed with radar-guided AA-6 Acrid air-to-air missiles. When the Soviets stationed large numbers in the Soviet Union and later in the GDR, NATO needed to address this problem.
Although the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom was equipped with modern infrared-guided AIM-9 Sidewinder and radar-controlled AIM-7 Sparrow air-to-air missiles, it was not as maneuverable as the MiG-19 Farmer and MiG-21 Fishbed fighters it faced over the skies of North Vietnam. While the F-4 was an ideal platform for a great variety of weapons and suitable for an equal number of various tasks, it was not developed solely as an air superiority fighter.
The solution was provided by the F-15 Eagle. Just like the MiG-25, it has two powerful engines and double tail fins. Its two powerful Pratt & Whitney F-100 turbofan engines provided a thrust of around 12,510 kg. And with full tanks and armed with four AIM-7F Sparrow air-to-air missiles the F-15A gave a thrust/weight ratio better than 1.1. This is the basis of the Eagle's phenomenal performance.
In 1977 Project Ready Eagle brought the McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle to the 36th TFW. The first F-15As arrived at Bitburg AB on 7 January 1977. These were two TF-15A (F-15B) trainers (serial numbers 75-049 and 75-050) that had flown non-stop from Langley AFB Virginia in seven and a half hours.
These Eagles were to be used primarily for ground crew familiarization in anticipation of the arrival of the 525th TFS's first F-15As. The 23 aircraft for this first operational squadron left Langley on 27 April 1977 for a mass Atlantic crossing. Over the following months the aircraft for two other squadrons (22d TFS and 53d TFS) arrived. The 36th TFW's full strength of 79 fully operational F-15As was reached in December 1977. Project Ready Eagle was completed in precisely one year. In 1980, more advanced F-15Cs and F-15Ds would replace the original F-15As.
On 5 May 1985 President Ronald Reagan visited Bitburg Air Base as part of a visit to Kolmeshohe Cemetery near the town of Bitburg. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl requested his visit to pay respects to the soldiers interred there.
Desert Shield/Desert Storm
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the 36th TFW conducted routine training missions from Bitburg Air Base, however the outbreak of the 1990-91 Gulf War put the F-15s of Bitburg into the heart of the conflict.
The 53d and 22d TFS (Combined Squadrons) and deployed to Al-Kharj Air Base Saudi Arabia, while the 525th TFS flew its F-15s to Incirlik Air Base Turkey as part of USAFE's Joint Task Force Proven Force. The 53d and 22d TFS F-15s entered the Gulf War on 17 January in support of Operation Desert Storm and were credited with 11 confirmed kills. Two F-15C's from the 53d TFS (84-025 and 84-027) each shot down 2 Iraqi MiGs on the first night of the war. The 525th entered combat on 19 January when two F-15s used AIM-7 Sparrow radar missiles to destroy two Iraqi Mirage F-1’s.
During the next six weeks, until the cease-fire, 36th TFW aircraft flew around the clock, protecting two strikes per day and one strike each night. PROVEN FORCE strikes targeted military airfields, nuclear and chemical facilities, communications centers, power plants, and oil refineries and storage facilities in northern Iraq. By the middle of February, PROVEN FORCE was attacking Baghdad. In addition to protecting strikers, the 525th FS was frequently tasked to man barrier caps in eastern Iraq to destroy Iraqi fighters attempting to flee to Iran. These missions, often lasting in excess of five hours, required aircraft to operate over 150 miles (240 km) behind enemy lines without any support assets.
The 36th TFW's pilots, support personnel and aircraft performed magnificently in Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Provide Comfort. The 36th Fighter Wing was credited with 17 confirmed air to air kills for the entire Gulf War. Not a single F-15C aircraft was lost in combat during the war. On 13 March 1991, over half of the deployed squadrons of the 36th TFW returned to Bitburg while a small contingent remained at Al Kharj AB until 3 July 1991.
The celebration was brief, however, as the 525th TFS deployed back to Incirlik AB on 5 April 1991 to support Operation PROVIDE COMFORT.
Following the war against Iraq, numerous Kurdish refugees fled northward from the remaining forces of Saddam Hussein. The United States initiated a vast airlift operation, named Operation PROVIDE COMFORT, to drop food and supplies to these refugees concentrated in Iraq along the Turkish border. Because tensions between the Iraqi and Allied forces in the area remained quite high, the 525th was called back to Turkey in April 1991 to protect the vulnerable Allied cargo aircraft. In addition, the 525th TFW was tasked, as part of the operation, to fly at low altitude over Iraq and provide intelligence updates of Iraqi troop and equipment locations.
Between the 5 April and the 25 May 1991, the 525th flew 285 sorties over Iraq in support of Operation PROVIDE COMFORT. Just as before, not a single aircraft was lost in Iraq due to hostile fire.
Post Cold War era
Bitburg Air Base was part of the 1993 Base Realignment and Closure (or BRAC) process that saw the drawdown of many military facilities. On 31 March 1992 the 525th "Bulldogs" retired their colors, while the 22d "Stingers" and 53d "Tigers" remained at Bitburg Air Base. On 1 November 1992, the 606th Air Control Squadron moved to Bitburg from Basdahl, Germany. In July 1993, HQ USAFE announced another in a series of post-Cold War force drawdowns in Europe which announced the closure of Bitburg Air Base and the pending inactivation of the 36th Fighter Wing.
With the announced closure of Bitburg, on 25 February 1994 the 53d Fighter Squadron was transferred to the 52d Operations Group at Spangdahlem Air Base, along with its F-15 fighters. The 22d Fighter Squadron was also moved to Spangdahlem on 1 April, however neither its personnel, nor its F-15s were transferred to the 52d TFW. The 22d became an F-16C/D Fighting Falcon squadron, replacing the 480th Fighter Squadron. The 606th Air Control Squadron was also assigned to the 52d Operations Group but remained at Bitburg until September 1995 before moving to Spangdahlem.
Along with its operational aircraft and squadrons, the 52d FW also gained Bitburg's 1,200 housing units, its base high school and hospital, and several exchange service and Defense Commissary Agency facilities.
On 1 October 1994 the 36th Fighter Wing was officially inactivated and the final 36th Wing Commander, Brigadier General Roger E. Carleton, returned Bitburg Air Base to the German government. The 36th Fighter Wing was inactivated in place, then reactivated without personnel or equipment at Andersen AFB, Guam the same day, taking over as the host unit there as the 36th Air Base Wing, a non-flying organization.
Bitburg Air Base Base Housing is currently serving as housing for part of the Spangdahlem Air Base and the Bitburg Annex contingents. The base housing is also provided for a nearby Army base in Butzweiler. Bitburg High School is the American high school located on the base, with the mascot being the Barons. There is also a middle school, with the Bobcat as its mascot.
As of August 2006, the remaining American facilities at Bitburg are in the process of being closed and returned to the German government. Americans living in Bitburg base housing are being relocated to Spangdahlem AB.
Between June and September 1997 necessary repairs on the Spangdahlem Air Base runway called for a temporary location to accommodate the 52d Fighter Wing's three squadrons of F-15s and F-16s. The closed Bitburg Air Base was the most logical place - only 10 miles (16 km) down the road.
The job entailed resurrecting the former U.S. Air Force flightline and associated fuel tanks that haven't seen fighter aircraft in over three years. Since its closure, the Bitburg runway had been operated as a small commercial airport. However, it had seen enough flightline maintenance to sufficiently host flying activities, but the fuel tanks had long been separated from the NATO Central European Pipeline System.
A site survey conducted in November 1996 verified the air base would indeed be an ideal site to temporarily support the three fighter squadrons from Spangdahlem. But there was work to be done. The fuel tanks required more work than the flightline. An inspection done by the German Technical Inspection Company approved the use of two 660,000-gallon capacity fuel tanks, however improvements needed to be made which included splash guard dyke and oil water separators. These improvements were made and though the summer of 1997, operational military flying returned to Bitburg.
The USAF departed for the second time in September 1997, and the flightline at Bitburg was returned to the civil aircraft which now call it home.
Notable Appearances in Media
Bitburg Air Base was featured in the 1981 documentary 'The Wing: Documentary of the F-15.'
- Donald, David (2004) Century Jets: USAF Frontline Fighters of the Cold War. AIRtime ISBN 1-880588-68-4
- Endicott, Judy G. (1999) Active Air Force wings as of 1 October 1995; USAF active flying, space, and missile squadrons as of 1 October 1995. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. CD-ROM.
- Fletcher, Harry R. (1989) Air Force Bases Volume II, Active Air Force Bases outside the United States of America on 17 September 1982. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-53-6
- Martin, Patrick (1994). Tail Code: The Complete History of USAF Tactical Aircraft Tail Code Markings. Schiffer Military Aviation History. ISBN 0-88740-513-4.
- Maurer, Maurer (1983). Air Force Combat Units Of World War II. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-89201-092-4.
- Menard, David W. (1998). Before Centuries: USAFE Fighters, 1948-1959. Schiffer Military Books ISBN 1-57427-079-6
- Mueller, Robert (1989). Active Air Force Bases Within the United States of America on 17 September 1982. USAF Reference Series, Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-53-6
- Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947-1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0-912799-12-9.
- Rogers, Brian (2005). United States Air Force Unit Designations Since 1978. Hinkley, England: Midland Publications. ISBN 1-85780-197-0.
- USAAS-USAAC-USAAF-USAF Aircraft Serial Numbers--1908 to present
- Mindling, George and Bolton, Robert (2008). US Air Force Tactical Missiles 1949-1969 The Pioneers. Lulu Press ISBN 978-0-557-00029-6.
- Bitburg Air Base Closure
- Bitburg Barons Alumni Association
- Reunion Website for the 36th TFW and Bitburg Air Base
- Bitburg AB Photo Website
- F-100s of 36th TFW (via F-100.org
- Tactical Missile Units at Bitburg
- Bitburg F-4s
- TAC Missileers - Matador and Mace Missileers