Wednesday, 12 September 2018

" Der Tod war schneller " Nörvenich crash 19 June 1962 - Starfighter tragedies in the Bundeswehr -Luftwaffe 'Die Starfighter Affäre' Der Spiegel magazine cover story 5/1966

Above; Jagdgeschwader 74 "Mölders", June 1965.

Below, left; " Alles in Ordnung "  - Luftwaffeninspekteur General Josef Kammhuber climbing down from the back-seat of an F-104 F to be greeted by Defence minister Franz Josef Strauss on 22 July 1960 in Nörvenich...

The Bundesluftwaffe (Federal German air force) was the primary user of the Starfighter, operating over thirty-five percent of all F-104s built and received a total of 916 Starfighters (30 F-104 Fs, 96 F-104 Gs, and 136 TF-104 Gs from Lockheed, 255 F/RF-104 Gs from the North Group, 210 F-104 Gs from the South Group, 88 F-104 Gs from the West Group, 50 F/RF-104 Gs from the Italian Group, plus 50 replacement F-104 Gs from MBB to replace some of those lost in crashes). At their peak in the mid-1970s, Starfighters equipped five nuclear-armed Luftwaffe fighter-bomber wings, two interceptor wings, and two reconnaissance wings. In addition, two attack wings of the Marineflieger (Federal German Navy) were equipped with Starfighters. The first German Starfighters were the Lockheed-built two-seat F-104 Fs which were initially used in the USA to train German instructors. At that time, the F-104 Fs were painted with standard USAF insignia and carried USAF serial numbers. These machines were then handed over to Waffenschule 10 under Mjr. Hans-Ulrich Flade, which was based at Nörvenich, near Cologne, BRD (Federal Republic). After handover, they were repainted in Luftwaffe insignia and assigned German serial numbers. They began converting pilots for JBG 31 in July of 1960. The first operational unit to be equipped with the F-104 G - the Gustav - was Jagdbombergeschwader 31 "Boelcke" (JBG31) under Kommodore Barkhorn, also based at Norvenich. JBG 31 became fully operational in 1963.

Lockheed F-104 G cn 2083 DC 234 JaboG 33 Buchel 1967 (Francillion photo archive)

On 20 June 1962 the official commissioning of the WS F-104 G "Starfighter" was planned for JaboG 31 at the Fliegerhost Nörvenich. The day prior to this, 19 June, the dress rehearsal of the short-lived aerobatics Schwarm F-104 F of the WaSLw 10 took place. This formation was due to present the F-104 to the numerous guests at the commissioning ceremony. The following aircrew were involved;

John Speer (4./WS 10, "Lead", USAF Advisory Group; BB+370),
Olt. Heinz Frye (flight instructor 2./WS10; BB+378),
Olt. Bernd Kuebart (Squadron Captain 2./WS10, ex JaboG 31; BB+365),
Olt. Wolfgang von Stürmer (flight instructor 4./WS10, ex WaSLw 10 Oldenburg; BB+385) as well as
Major Tom Perfili ("Solo", USAF).
Olt. Bernd Kuebart and Olt. Wolfgang von Stürmer were among the first six pilots in 1960 to retrain for the F-104 in Palmdale, California.

The program for this demonstration was practiced several times in the past. With the call sign "Starfighters" the formation took off in the afternoon. After take-off in "Finger Tip Formation" the first two figures were flown correctly. Major Tom Perfili waited in the holding position for his solo performance, which was planned about 15 minutes later. About 10 minutes after take-off some 8 km eastern distant and above the brown coal open pit mine Knapsack (near Hürth) clouds of smoke were seen in the sky. What had happened?

As "lead" John Speer had tried to  come back over the airfield with the Schwarm as fast as possible. He cut through a small cloud bank in an elevated 180° (right) curve and overturned the machines then flying in "Diamond" formation so far that pulling out was no longer possible. Probably due to John Speer's spatial disorientation the formation left the cloud at too steep angle (in an almost vertical attitude) downwards. Olt. Wolfgang von Stürmer, who was flying at the rear of the formation and thus had the best overview, tried in vain to pull up his machine.

" ..Without haste the Schwarm leader, US Captain John Speer, gave the commands, as he had done every previous manoeuvre, with a calm voice via radio. This was to be the last one. In the operations tower of the Nörvenich air base, suddenly those present heard; "Hau ab! (Get away!), immediately followed by, "Hold it!" (Hold the machine!), then "My God!". At that moment, on Tuesday of last week, just after four in the afternoon, the disaster could no longer be stopped. Two of the four Starfighters had touched each other with their stubby 2.50 meter-long wings.. They sagged and dragged the other two machines with them. The four aircraft burst into pieces; their debris bored into the lignite mine of the Fürstenberg briquette factory near Frechen, which was covered with a layer of mud. The four pilots, apart from the US captain the Bundeswehr lieutenant Kuebart, Frye and von Stürmer, were killed instantly..." (Der Spiegel 26/162)

In the period that followed, those responsible at the time endeavoured to minimise the circumstances of the incident so as not to give the impression that it was an aerobatics flight. But today the accident is the reason why the Luftwaffe does not practise formation aerobatics. The idea of setting up an aerobatics Schwarm with the WS 104 was born in September 1961 on the occasion of the Luftwaffe's five-year anniversary at Fürstenfeldbruck. There, the combat-like flying and the spectacle of four Starfighters breaking the sound barrier at an altitude of 16,000 metres led in the following months to routine flight operations in Nörvenich comprising two, three ship formations working their way more and more towards a four ship formation, which finally demonstrated aerobatics with the F-104. These figures were mainly flown horizontally and the (critical) vertical maneuvers for the F-104 were omitted.

 Below; JBG 31 F-104 at IAT 1977

The 'Hundert vier' Starfighter in Luftwaffe service quickly acquired an appalling reputation - there were a large number of accidents, many of them resulting in fatalities. Intensive flying operations with the Starfighter did not start in Germany until 1961, when only two crashes took place. There were seven crashes in 1962, 12 in 1964, and 28 in 1965, or more than two a month. 1965 was the 'blackest' year for the German Starfighter programme - 26 million D-Mark of machines smashed into the ground, 17 pilots dead. By mid-1966, 61 German Starfighters had crashed, with a loss of 35 pilots. One pilot killed was the son of a former Defence Minister Kai-Uwe von Hassel. Joachim von Hassel was the 57th German Starfighter pilot death when he crashed in 1970. ('Mein Mann war Nummer 57') At the height of the crisis, the Starfighter accident rate peaked at 139 per 100,000 flying hours. As a result, the German press went into a feeding frenzy and the F-104 G was given derogatory nicknames such as "Witwenmacher"  -'widowmaker' - " Der Sarg mit dem Balkenkreuz" - " the Coffin with the Maltese Cross" - or even the "Sargfighter". In total 116 Bundesluftwaffe pilots lost their lives in Starfighter crashes.  At the height of the Starfighter political crisis in mid-1966, the Luftwaffe chief, Luftwaffeninspekteur General Werner Panitzki, Kammhuber's successor, was forced to resign after he had criticized the Federal Republic's Starfighter procurement program as being politically-motivated. His successor was the World War 2 ace Lieutenant General Johannes Steinhoff, who had flown Me 262 jets during the war. Steinhoff had not initially been a Starfighter supporter, and he had complained about the Bonn Defence Ministry's failure to implement the recommendations of his 1964 report on F-104 G survival measures. One of Steinhoff's first moves was to review the F-104 G's ejection system to enhance the probability of a successful escape by a pilot at low level. The Lockheed C-2 ejection seat initially fitted to the F-104 G had been fitted with a more powerful Talley Corp 10100 rocket booster by November 1966 to give it true zero-zero capability. However, it was found that the Talley rockets had a destabilizing effect after ejection, and had to be removed. After the German Starfighter had to be grounded once again for fixes to the C-2 seats in December of 1966, it was decided to switch over to Martin-Baker Mk GQ7A zero-zero ejection seats. A contract was signed on March 8, 1967 to re-equip the entire German F-104 G force with the Martin-Baker seats. This took about a year to get done. The first successful use of a GQ7 seat to escape from a German F-104 G took place during a ground-level overshoot at Ramstein on 24 September 1968.

Part 1 of a five-part German documentary  'Die F-104 G Starfighter Affäre'

" ...Walter Krupinksi, former JG 52 fighter ace and JV 44 Me 262 jet pilot went to the US at the request of Defence Minister Strauss to trial the Starfighter although he was no test pilot. He wrote an enthusiastic report about the type and presented it to Luftwaffeninspekteur Kammhuber ..."

" ...the Lockheed lobbyists - the firm was threatened with bankruptcy at the time - set up their HQ in the Koenigshof hotel in Bonn and undertook a month long tour through Germany in an attempt to clinch the deal - advertisements appeared in the German press for the type on a daily basis as if a new brand of washing powder was being sold.. .."

"..With the 'Super' Starfighter contract, the Federal Republic of Germany ordered Lockheed to develop an all-weather multi-purpose aircraft -from the existing F 104 A day fighter- at German expense, namely the F 104 G, with which three roles would have to be filled: that of the interceptor, the reconnaissance aircraft and the fighter bomber, which in an emergency would be used for a nuclear strike against targets beyond the Iron Curtain. Effectively the Federal Republic was buying a machine that did not exist..." (Der Spiegel 24/1962)

" By the spring of 1962 the time had arrived. At the Nörvenich Air Force Base the first squadron was equipped with the Starfighter. Strauss and Kammhuber wanted to present the aircraft to the public with great fanfare. 

interviewee Günther Rall (faded in) 

"... and Kammhuber said: "Let's go outside, see the practise display." And then he said: " the Waffenschule has an aerobatics team." Rall: "What do you have ? An aerobatics team ? ... (Shaking his head, smiling ironically) ... But you know that ... Kammhuber wanted to fly along, two-seater ...  I said: "Well, General, enough!"

Commentator :  "...Kammhuber's secretly ordered aerobatics display goes terribly wrong. One day before the celebration the squadron crashes during a training flight. The American pilot Speer, the leader of the formation, makes a mistake. The other three pilots follow him to their deaths. The celebrations in Nörvenich are cancelled. Instead Strauss has to attend the funeral service of the dead pilots. An enormous embarrassment, he had mocked the critics only a few weeks previously. .."

 Strauss's speech faded in (underlaid with pictures of the funeral ceremonies): "... and as far as the formation of the F-104 squadrons is concerned, you will receive the invitation to be personally present at the formation of the first full squadron of the F-104 G in Nörvenich on 20 June..."

Trailer for the RTL German TV dramatisation of the "Starfighter Affäre"

" With a 20,000 hp jet engine in his back Lieutenant Peter Kmonitzek in his Starfighter fighter bomber "F - 104 G" chased through the dark evening sky. It was a training flight, altitude: 9000 meters.

Suddenly, exactly eleven minutes after take-off, the lieutenant felt a choking feeling and nausea. His arms and legs began to twitch. Hastily Kmonitzek, one of the best qualified Starfighter pilots in the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces) reached to the right for the control switch of the oxygen system and increased the supply from 60 to 100 percent. Nevertheless, nausea and limb twitching did not subside .Kmonitzek pushed the stick forward and let the machine swing down. His left hand clasped the catapult grip of the ejection seat. Lieutenant Kmonitzek tore the oxygen mask off his face at an altitude of 5000 metres. He looked into the rear-view mirror: his lips were white.
Kmonitzek aborted the flight. After his landing the security officer of the squadron said: "It could have been his death". The lieutenant came for medical treatment to the Aeromedical Institute in Fürstenfeldbruck.

Eight days before, on 6 December last year (1965) at 17:09, one of Kmonitzek's comrades, the 33-year-old Starfighter pilot and squadron captain Major Klaus Heinrich Lehnert, had also taken off from Nörvenich for a training flight. Eleven minutes later, over the Dortmund beacon, Lehnert answered for the last time with the call sign of his aircraft via voice radio: "Delta Alpha 254 . ." Then, in the middle of the sentence, the radio contact broke off. Pilotless - Major Lehnert slumped over in his pilot's seat - the atomic bomber raced northwards at an altitude of 9000 metres, almost at the speed of sound. Two hours and 33 minutes after take-off, the tanks were empty. The plane crashed on a rocky cliff outcrop near Ankenes, seven kilometres south of Narvik.

One of the possible causes of the Lehnert accident: traces of toxic gases in the airstream of the oxygen system, the reason for the premature landing of the Starfighter pilot Kmonitzek: fear of poison in the oxygen.

The fatal crash of Major Lehnert and the emergency landing of his comrade Kmonitzek cast a shadow on the year's end - the tenth year in the history of the Bundeswehr. It was supposed to be a year of accomplishment for the flying arm of the Federal German armed forces. Five years earlier, when a Starfighter was demonstrated for the first time in Germany on the occasion of the Hanover Air Show, the-then Air Force Inspector General Josef Kammhuber had predicted that the German Starfighter air fleet would be complete and ready for battle by the end of 1965. The new German air force would then "belong to the best-equipped air forces in the world ".

" there is no end to the Starfighter Crisis. On page 23 of this issue of 'Der SPIEGEL' you can read, how one winter evening out of 52 aircraft of the Jabo-Geschwader Memmingen only eleven were serviceable but by the next morning only six machines were able to fly; how at the fighter squadron Wittmundhaven one training 'Rotte' went unserviceable while two replacement machines - declared startklar - were also unable to get airborne.. There will be no end to this 'crisis' so long as this aircraft remains in service and Hans Schmelz is SPIEGEL editor..."

"... The news of crash upon crash from Germany's Starfighter fleet has made headlines and filled obituary columns. Bad jokes like "widow maker", "flying coffin" and "beautiful death" (as US pilots had already christened the Starfighter years ago) reappeared in banner headlines. The Hamburg "Welt" called it the "Starfighter tragedy" at the end of December and added: "The run of accidents has become a matter of public concern. It belongs before the parliament." Already one year ago, on 20 January 1965, the Starfighter program of the German Armed Forces was the subject of a furious, albeit irrelevant, Bundestag session. The central theme of the debate on military maladministration: massive accusations by SPD member of parliament Karl Wienand, who had denounced the Starfighter program (among other armament projects) as a "huge waste".

Now, on Wednesday the week before last, the people's representatives again consulted about the Starfighter affair - this time in a small, secretive circle. Behind the locked doors of Bundeshaussaal 117 A, surrounded by steel cabinets filled with secret files, the 31 members of the defense committee met with a pack of officers and officials from the Federal Ministry of Defense to get an answer to a small request from the SPD.

The Bundeswehr's most expensive weapon system, according to the dreams of the strategists "spearhead of German air defense" ("FAZ") and "most powerful force within NATO" ("Interavia"), has turned out to be a disastrous planning bankruptcy. West Germany's taxpayers have so far spent at least eight billion marks on the acquisition and maintenance of the Starfighter fleet - as much as the Americans spent on the construction of the first atomic bomb.

For this the Germans have purchased an air force, which (according to the judgement of the SPD delegate Wienand) is at best "conditionally operational". Germany's Starlighter squadrons would, measured by the current crash rate, have shrunk by about a quarter of their stock by the beginning of the seventies, are of limited use for one of their planned operational tasks according to NATO planning as interceptors against enemy atomic bombers - in bad weather, are only imperfectly able to navigate their strategic mission - the nuclear strike in a Soviet attack.

Now, four years after the handover of the first Starfighter aircraft to the Luftwaffe, the scale and causes of the Starfighter debacle become visible. The frightening losses of planes and pilots - described by General Johannes Steinhoff with the pithy word "blood duty" - and last but not least the fact that for the Starfighter program, independent of the losses by crashes, so far about 750 million marks avoidable additional costs have been incurred, are the consequence of an unprecedented overestimation by German armament planners.

In a touch of military-political craving for great power and in the determination to participate on the nuclear stage with the Western powers, the Bundeswehr, with a lack of expertise and in a hurry, imposed a technically extremely complicated weapon system - on a scale that far overtaxed the technical and personnel capabilities of the still young Luftwaffe. The pilot who controls the single-seat aircraft is stretched to the limit of human capability. When he climbs the cockpit via the eight-step stepladder and settles down with his shoulders, stomach and legs tied to the ejection seat - behind the control stick - he is, as it were, surrounded by electronic equipment. The Starfighter contains such a variety of measuring, calculating, display and operating systems that only a few years ago they were scarcely found in large bombers with a large crew...

Left; cover image 'Der Spiegel  - 5/1966" and, below, interview with Luftwaffeninspekteur Generalleutnant Werner Panitzski
  ( translations of the Spiegel article and interview by this blog author)

Der Spiegel   " General, the public are saying that the series of crashes of the Starfighter last year was "catastrophic". How do you assess the accident situation?

Panitzski   " In 1965 the Luftwaffe recorded an increase in aircraft accidents with the "F-104 G", as a result of which the attention and interest of the public was naturally concentrated on the "F-104". However, the accident curve does not differ significantly from the development of aircraft accidents in the weapon systems introduced in the Air Force before the "F-104".

Der Spiegel   " How do you explain the frequent accidents last year? "

Panitzski   " The increase in the "F-104" accident rate is not the result of one or other principal failure or error, but, as we discovered during the detailed investigations, it was the combination of errors, deficiencies and inadequacies in a wide variety of areas that led to the emergence of this catastrophe. From the catastrophic situation you also cited. There can therefore be no question of an accident 'situation', even though every single accident worries me. Air accidents cannot, however, be avoided by any measure, however conscientious it may be. Even in road transport - if you will allow me to make this comparison - accidents will not be ruled out by daily instructions for drivers or by improving driving safety in technology and people. We will not, however, be slackening in our efforts to identify and eliminate the causes of accidents..."

Der Spiegel  ".. What are the reasons why the relatively young Luftwaffe maintains such a complicated weapon system as the Starfighter in such large numbers? "

Panitzski  ".. Let me remind you that, for various reasons, the Air Force's original equipment consisted of subsonic weapon systems which had already been phased out by the US Air Force. When selecting a new system at the time, we did not opt for the next generation in the technical sense, but for the one after next. This makes it possible to keep the new weapon system in service for many years. The costs are spread over a longer period of time than with a less modern system, which would soon have to be replaced again. Production also becomes more economical for larger quantities. At the same time the possibility arose to bridge the twelve-year break from 1945 to 1957 and to catch up with the air forces of our NATO partners.."

Der Spiegel   " There is no doubt that there are many difficulties in the Air Force in overcoming the Starfighter problem. Where do these problems come from? How will you solve them? "

Panitzski  ".. The Luftwaffe was of course aware that this leap in development would cause some problems. The difficulties you mentioned, however, are not just  problems specific to the Starfighter. The Bundeswehr, not just the Luftwaffe, lacks a high percentage of longer-serving personnel which, from the point of view of length of service alone, would make it possible to obtain the time-consuming special training to become an "F-104" technician. I have just proposed a number of possible measures to the Defence Committee in the personnel sector, which I hope will improve the personnel situation. Whether the proposed measures will be sufficient depends on many factors, including the future development of the situation in the German labour market, and cannot, of course, be predicted. The second difficulty lies in the technical deficiencies which have been discovered both in the course of aircraft accident investigations and during maintenance and repair work and which have repeatedly prompted the German Air Force to block the "F-104" from flying for safety reasons until all aircraft have been inspected and the deficiencies rectified. Of course, these difficulties also exist with other air forces and other types of aircraft, but this problem hits the young German air force particularly hard because it has a dual effect: technical deficiencies can endanger flight safety on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a high percentage of flight hours is lost in the event of closures, which in turn is lacking in order to provide pilots with flying experience. Of course, changes will never be avoidable. In future, however, they will be limited to those which improve flight safety and which are absolutely necessary for tactical reasons..."

Der Spiegel:  " General, you mentioned the personnel problem. How do you explain the fact that there are too few candidates for pilot duty?.."

Panitzski   "  I don't think there is a causal connection between the increasing number of aircraft accidents and this. Rather, I see the main reasons for this in the diversity of opportunities offered to a young person in the age of economic prosperity in all professions..."

Geschwaderkommodore of JG 71 and former JG 51 ace Günther Josten was one commander who did not doubt the qualities of the F-104. But the widespread view that the procurement of the F-104 had not been done the right way, that the aircraft was unreliable, its electronic equipment unsuitable, all the facts and half-truths, right and wrong conclusions that were flying around rather blocked the determined management of the crisis, because they strengthened the already overpowering 'siege mentality' in both the political and military leadership of the Bundeswehr. On 27 January 1966 Josten took the dramatic step of requesting that his squadron be taken completely out of NATO subordination since the maintenance of an 'Alarmrotte' - the permanent readiness of machines to be scrambled against the Russian threat - prevented JG 71 from attaining the necessary and required flight hours. For reasons of flight safety, live firing training over the sea had already been stopped. In addition weather minima had to be increased for flight operations, since his pilots did not have enough experience and could hardly gain more. Günther Josten was not interested in confrontation. He was more interested in training more intensely than it was possible to do. He needed more time to manage and master the weapons and electronic systems - from the technical, logistical and infrastructure standpoints. On 31 January 1966 Josten was met by the commanding General of Luftwaffengruppe Nord, Gen. Lt. Werner Eugen Hoffmann - waiting unannounced in the Stabs building in Wittmund - who had arrived to participate in the pilots pre-sortie briefings. Hoffmann wanted to know how many flying personnel JG 71 had lost since its formation. - How many ? Thirteen: "That's not so bad," Hoffmann replied angrily according to Josten's notes - "other units have lost far more... "  Now 'Der Spiegel' magazine's reporting was also used against him: "How were the pictures in the latest Starfighter articles taken? " And how was the magazine able to write in its issue 7/1966 that in Wittmund recently a training Rotte from " Jagdgeschwader Wittmundhaven " could not get airborne because of technical problems with the two assigned machines nor was it able to take off with the two replacement aircraft? *  (*a telephone conversation with a press officer in Bonn was partly overheard by a Spiegel editor who was present at the time, but the circumstances of the actual chain of events had been misrepresented in the magazine..) Josten enlightened him: Weather and serviceability issues had prevented  himself and Hptm. Pötter, the Kapitän of 711. Staffel from flying the sortie. " The accusations of the commanding General were so serious that I was gave real thought to relinquishing my post as Geschwader Kommodore.."

 -Based on Günther Josten's 'Gefechtsbericht' (296 Verlag)

-Der Spiegel article on the Nörvenich crash " Death in the Afternoon " in issue 26/1962 here

 -interview with ex-Starfighter pilot Wulf Beeck published in Bild newspaper to coincide with the broadcast of RTL's TV film production 'Starfighter - sie wollten den Himmel erobern ' in 2015 here   (German text)

 -Wulf's own film of his time on Starfighters is also on youtube. English commentary. A single click to view here

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