Two-day life expectancy: F-4 Phantoms in Cold War Germany

All photos copyright Ian Black

Throughout the Cold War, Britain’s Royal Air Force had military aircraft based in West Germany. For the airmen of RAF Germany the thought that the vast forces of the Warsaw Pact may one day be met in battle was an extremely sobering prospect, not least as it likely meant guaranteed death within a matter of days, if not minutes. We spoke to Ian Black about life in a RAF Germany F-4 Phantom squadron.

What was the Phantom’s role in RAF Germany?

“Well initially the Phantom FGR2 was introduced into RAF Germany as nuclear strike aircraft with 3 Squadrons based At RAF Brüggen,. There was a dedicated Squadron for reconnaissance at RAF Laarbruch who also had a secondary strike role. This lasted til 1976 when the Jaguar replaced the Phantom (rather ironic as it could carry half the weapons over a shorter range but that was the way the RAF worked). Some reorganisation on aircraft types and bases saw the Lightnings at RAF Gütersloh withdrawn and replaced by the F-4s. Moving further back was controversial but it was deemed better the Harriers left Wildenrath and were located on the border and the F-4 Phantoms took over ‘Battle Flight’ (the RAF Germany name for QRA”

“How did local civilians view us? Probably not great…one of our aircraft was shot by a local in the circuit and landed with a bullet hole in the stabilator!”

What was your biggest fear if war had broken out?

“Well… dying! But as I posted on Twitter: a blue-on-blue or being shot down by the NATO short range air defence Hawk/Rapier missile operators who were known to be trigger-happy. I mentioned that the MiG-23/27 was very hard to distinguish from our own Jaguars head-on. In the early 80s the only way we identify a hostile target was visually. To add to the complexity, 75% of the time the weather we flew around in gave us visibility of 5kms or less. You had around 5-10 seconds to get a visual acquisition and decide to squeeze the trigger.The Sparrow had a pretty small window of minimum and maximum range at low level on a head-on target.”

“Winters were pretty severe.” The little house on the tail was not actually there.

How did we compare to other Phantoms of the time? At low level we were superior in every respect.”

How long would the Phantom force have likely survived in World War 3? “Good question. Hard to say. We were in the middle of the central region but we only had 22 FGR2 phantoms – two were always on major servicing, that’s 20. I’d say 25% were unserviceable most of the time, so realistically if we had 15 fully serviceable jets on the base that was good going. I guess the UK would have sent out aircraft but to be honest they were stretched as well. So, perhaps two-three days if the Warsaw Pact kept marching forward. You can see the nuclear option might have happened very quickly just to stop the surge.”

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“We were like a pack of marauding wolves hunting our quarry without mercy.”

What was the nastiest threat aircraft you expected to face? “In the Warsaw Pact the MiG-29 which was just coming into service. The MiG-21 would have eaten an F-4 alive in a visual fight but realistically we wouldn’t be seeing a MiG-21 at 250 feet near the Dutch border as it didn’t have the range. Likewise, I don’t think the MiG-23 would have been a big threat to the FGR2.

What was your most memorable flight?

“I loosened my straps and checked our 6 ‘o’ clock . Sidewinders growling, we locked up a German F-104 and took out first shot.”

“Any flight in an FGR2 is memorable but if one sticks in my mind, it would be the ‘Battle of Pehiem Mast’. We had got airborne as a four-ship of FGR2s with the simple code of @ ATAF SOPS in the authorisation sheets. This meant 2 ATAF (2nd Tactical Air Force ) and standard operating procedures. That meant we could intercept and try to engage any aircraft at low level and be legally allowed to perform two 360 degree turns and one reversal. In reality we were cleared for full-up low-level air combat! We would get airborne from Wildenrath, hard turn south away from the Dutch border, and pitch back east and work our way north. All silently. No radio comms. Transiting at 420 knots in Card 4 (in a diamond formation of four like a 4 playing card ) we were like a pack of marauding wolves hunting our quarry without mercy. “

“We flew through LFA 2 and headed to the twin power stations that marked the start of LFA (low flying area 1). LFA was very flat with no hills or high terrain except one 730-foot radio mast in the middle of the area. No, LFA 1 was south of GAF Jever and home to the TLP courses that ran a couple of times a year often with up to 60 aircraft. On this day as we turned north my radar started to show 2 then 4 then 8 then 20 then multiple contacts! I guessed around 40 aircraft all at low level. It was like a Space Invaders game as we put the targets on the nose. My pilot could see the mast and then the mêlée that was going on. It was like some huge Cold War wagon-wheel. We joined in to this mega fight. I loosened my straps and checked our 6 ‘o’ clock . Sidewinders growling, we locked up a German F-104 and took out first shot. I saw F-104s , G91, F-16s F-15s and F-111s all just in one huge daisy chain all trying to get shots on each other. We arrived in the fight in full reheat and started picking people off whilst making some token effort to ensure we didn’t get shot. It probably lasted 10 minutes and we were out of gas – and headed for home. We take nine simulated shots.. 8 missile shots plus some gun film of a lone F-104 trying to turn with the rest. Thats a memory I won’t forget for a long time.”

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How was life in Germany different to life in a UK squadron?
“Clearly we were better as we were on the front line – it was certainly more operational but then we didn’t do live QRA intercepts on the Russians so it wasn’t all kudos. 90% of our flying was low level over land and we didn’t fly at night much . In one three letter word it was more FUN.”

How did local civilians view you?
“Probably not great as one of our aircraft was shot by a local in the circuit and landed with a bullet hole in the stabilator! I guess they tolerated us but not with welcome arms particularly. There was though some pretty passionate enthusiast who kept a good record of our movements.”

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Did war with the Soviets seem likely?
Very. We literally went shopping with our full NBC kit and gas masks in the boot of the car so yes 24/7 we were ready to go – it certainly wasn’t a game.”

Was the Phantom a good aircraft for the role – did it have all the desired equipment?
“Brilliant (though the Tornado F3 would have been as good if not better). We had the best radar in NATO – 30 mile pick-ups on low level targets 8 missiles , two crew and a pretty good RWR as well as an Inertial Navigation system which was jam-proof.”

What was your social life like?
“Tough, as we lived and breathed squadron life 24-7.”

Did any pilot consider themselves the best, if so who – and were they right? “Not at all. Some were average but no one was the best. It was actually quite strange doing a job where there was no real pecking order.”

What was 19 Sqn’s culture like – who did you consider your rivals?
“92 were our rivals in a friendly way – we didn’t mess with the West German Air Force F-4s, but worked closely with the BAF and Dutch F-16s as well as USAFE and CAF guys.”

What did you think of German and US fighter units in Germany?
“The USAFE were good as were the Belgians at the time. When I was there the F-4FGs had pulse-only radar and old missiles so they were not as capable as they ended up”

Tell me something I don’t know about RAFG Phantom life
“I spent three months of my life out of three years on 24 hour alert – and I got four live scrambles. “

How did British Phantoms compare to US and German Phantoms of the time?At low level we were superior in every respect.”

What should I have asked you?
“Why did I want to be a pilot having flown in the back for three years? Because that’s what I should have done from day one but at the time they wanted back-seaters – but I have no regrets. I loved the ‘luxury’ of being a back-seater and the relative lack of pressure. “

“The Gun was very good – but it was externally mounted so a hard landing could knock it off harmonisation.”

Is it true German pilots had cooler uniforms and clothing?
“Not at all! They wore orange flying suits and looked ridiculous 🙂 The USAF though had cool flight gear and it was always our aim to try and swap flight gear at beer calls but we were only allowed to wear non-standard stuff away from home base like Deci and Cyprus .. quite comical seeing everyone arrive then get their “ party” gear out ! We all stuck to wearing RAF helmets apart from one guy who had a modified US Navy bone-dome but it wasn’t encouraged.”

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