MILAVIA > Specials > Luftwaffe Phantoms - The Early Years Last updated: 26 February 2014
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Special Report : Luftwaffe Phantoms - The Early Years

Luftwaffe Phantoms – The Early Years

Helmut Richter looks back at the introduction and early service of the Luftwaffe F-4 Phantoms using his personal collection of photos from 1970-1980

For military aviation enthusiasts a major highlight (or rather lowlight) of the year 2013 was the F-4F Phantom Pharewell at Wittmund: after 40 years of Luftwaffe service the last German Phantoms were officially retired.

This contribution does not intend to add anything to the already significant coverage of the 2013 Pharewell event in numerous publications but rather puts the focus on the other end of the F-4’s life-cycle in German service 40 years ago. It draws from my collection of original slides and black & white negatives originating both from my own and some of my friends’ photographic work and puts these into the context of the F-4F transition timeline of the various Luftwaffe fighter and fighter-bomber units between 1973 to the end of the decade. In order to round-up the transition history, some pictorial coverage of the equipment in use in the various units before the introduction of the F-4F and a short history of the RF-4E introduction into the German reconnaissance units is also provided.

Prelude: The RF-4E

When the F-4F entered Luftwaffe service, the Luftwaffe had already been operating a version of the Phantom. The RF-4E had started replacing the RF-104G in the two Luftwaffe Aufklärungsgeschwader (reconnaissance wings) AG 51 and AG 52 in 1971.

The RF-4E acquisition was the result of the recognition that the very limited capabilities of the RF-104G were no longer adequate in the context of the NATO “flexible response” doctrine of 1967, which implied a stronger focus on conventional warfare including improved all weather reconnaissance capabilities. Lockheed made several proposals to improve the F-104G platform, finally resulting in the much modified two-seat RTF-104G. From the evaluation, which also included other types, the RF-4 emerged as the clear winner despite its high price-tag, mainly because of its good service and safety record in the USAF. The RF-4E basically was an export version of the RF-4C based on the F-4E airframe and engines and with improved sensors. The decision to acquire 88 RF-4Es was taken in 1968 and the aircraft started to reach Luftwaffe units in early 1971.

AG 51 was the first unit to be re-equipped. Image 1 of 35+10 shows the first RF-4E to pay a visit to Nörvenich air base in early 1971. Apparently, the new aircraft and its recce equipment created a lot of interest with the JaboG 31 staff.

The infusion of the RF-4E was completed in early 1972. After that the aircraft became a common sight at air shows and in particular at NATO exercises.

AG 52 already took their new aircraft to the 1972 Tiger Meet at Cambrai, France. Image 2 shows 35+77 of AG 52 participating in the 1974 Tiger Meet at Bitburg Air Base.

In June 1975, the NATO exercise “Royal Flush” was held at Bremgarten with participation of both Luftwaffe Aufklärungsgeschwader. One of the AG 52 participants was 35+39, depicted in Image 3 at the last chance position before taking off. The Tactical Air Meet 1978, held at RAF Wildenrath, had a wide participation of 2nd ATAF (Allied Tactical Air Force) and 4th ATAF fighter bomber and recce units, including USAF 10th TRW and 17th TRS as well as AG 51. AG 51 had a special “flame” paint scheme applied to the underwing tanks of their RF-4Es as exemplified in Image 4 on 35+28.

The F-4F arrives

As for the reconnaissance equipment, the NATO flexible response doctrine put new requirements on the fighter and fighter bomber units. While longer term replacement of F-104G and G.91 was planned by the PA-200 Tornado and the Alpha Jet, the declining F-104G inventory was expected to cause an interim capability gap in the second half of the 1970’s. Therefore, a short term requirement was identified to equip the two Jagdgeschwader (fighter wings) and two of the Jagdbombergeschwader (fighter- bomber wings) with a new aircraft starting in 1974. This necessitated selection of an existing aircraft type and from the evaluation the F-4 Phantom II emerged as the winner. The order for 175 F-4F Phantom IIs was placed with McDonnell Douglas in 1971.

The F-4F is based on the F-4E with minor modifications, partly to improve commonality with the RF-4E. Thanks to the incorporation of semi-automatic slats and a lower weight than the F-4E, the F-4F was the most manoeuvrable version of the F-4 Phantom II. Due to a simplified radar compared to the F-4E, the F-4F had no capability to use the AIM-7 Sparrow and was unable to track low flying or multiple targets. There was also no provision to carry guided air-to-ground missiles (AGM).

The first F-4F took into the air at the MDD plant in St Louis in March 1973. The following chapters give a unit by unit account of the F-4F introduction into Luftwaffe service.

35th TFW

The first F-4F production aircraft were not delivered directly to Germany, as eight aircraft went to the 35th TFW at George AFB, California, to be used for pilot training, which started in January 1974 with the first crews from Jagdgeschwader 71 (JG 71).

Image 5 shows one of these aircraft 72-117 (later 37+07) at George AFB in October 1973. The aircraft wore the standard Luftwaffe Norm 72 colour scheme but with USAF markings. Because the Luftwaffe urgently needed these F-4Fs for operational use, Germany later acquired ten new F-4Es for pilot training.

Jagdgeschwader 71 “Richthofen” (JG 71)

JG 71 at Wittmund was the first Luftwaffe unit to receive the F-4F in March 1974. JG 71 had been flying the F-104G since 1963, when it transitioned from the Canadair Sabre Mk.6. In preparation to the arrival of the F-4F, JG 71 had deployed a significant number of F-104Gs to Nörvenich for continued operation of the F-104G until they were transferred to the Luftwaffenversorgungsregiment 1 (LVR 1) at Erding. Images 6 to 8 depict F-104G 25+92, 26+01, and TF-104G 28+31 during their deployment to Nörvenich in February 1974.

The transition to the F-4F was completed in May 1975. Image 9 shows 37+27 of JG 71 early in its career in 1975. The factory fresh Norm 72 colour scheme is shown to good effect. Later in the 1970’s, many aircraft received coloured rudders and fuselage patches to ease identification during air combat training. 38+66 (Images 10 and 11) shows its red air combat identification markings during the 1979 Neuburg air show. 37+31 (Image 12) and 37+95 (Image 13) are two further JG 71 aircraft pictured at Leeuwarden and Gütersloh respectively. 37+95 carried drop tanks in an experimental colour scheme, which were apparently taken from a different aircraft. A significant number of colour schemes had been evaluated in the late 1970’s, eventually leading to the Norm 81 standard scheme which was applied to the F-4F from 1982 onwards.

Jagdgeschwader 74 “Mölders” (JG 74)

JG 74, based at Neuburg, Bavaria, was the second Luftwaffe fighter wing to transition from the F-104G to the F-4F. The F-104G had been in operation with JG 74 since 1964, when it transitioned from the F-86K Sabre.

Again, Nörvenich air base is the location where the two F-104Gs of JG 74 in Image 14 (24+64) and Image 15 (24+68) were taken. 24+64 is depicted in standard Luftwaffe air defence configuration with two pylon tanks and wingtip Sidewinder rails while 24+68 is in ferry configuration with four external fuel tanks.

A base visit to Neuburg in March 1974 provided the opportunity, albeit in rainy weather, to take Image 16 of TF-104G 27+87. Unfortunately, there were not many more opportunities later to take photos of JG 74’s F-104s because the transition to the F-4F started in July 1974 and was completed in February 1976. With the introduction of the F-4F, JG 74 was given the secondary role of close air support.

I was able to pay a second visit to JG 74 in March 1975, where Images 17 to 19 (37+60, 37+73 and 37+74) were taken. The JG 74 badge now carries the tradition name of “Mölders”, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, who died in an accident in 1941. The name “Mölders” was awarded in November 1973, but was removed again in 2005 due to controversy about Mölders’ role in Legion Condor and the Third Reich Luftwaffe. Another good opportunity to see JG 74’s F-4Fs in action was the air show held in September 1979. Images 20 to 22 of 37+40, 37+52 and 37+56 were taken at this event. 37+40 again carries red air combat identification marks.

Thanks to my colleague Hans Nijhuis, who was able to pay a visit to Neuburg in June 1979, I can also show two of the experimental F-4F colour schemes in Images 23 and 24 of 37+92 and 38+56.

Jagdbombergeschwader 36 “Westfalen” (JaboG 36)

The third Geschwader to move to the F-4F was JaboG 36 at Hopsten, which had operated the F-104G in the fighter bomber role since 1965, transitioning from the F-84F. JaboG 31, 32, 33 and 34 continued flying the F-104G until arrival of the PA-200 Tornado in the early 1980’s.

Images 25 and 26 of F-104G 26+10 and TF-104G 28+20, both again taken at Nörvenich, show JaboG 36 Starfighters with the large JaboG 36 badge on the intake. As a sign of things to come, 28+20 also wears a “Phantom II”- badge on the fuselage ahead of the intake.

JaboG 36 was intended to keep its conventional fighter bomber role with the F-4F, with air defence as a secondary role. The nuclear strike role of the Geschwader had already been abolished in 1972. JaboG36 received its first F-4F in February 1975. A number of F-104Gs were again deployed to Nörvenich. JaboG 31 staff endeavoured to “improve” the look of several JaboG 36 aircraft by applying a cow to the JaboG 36 badge instead of the horse. 21+58, shown in Image 27, shows the funny outcome.

The first opportunity to see the F-4F in action with JaboG 36 was in June 1977, just one year after completion of the transition. One of the highlights was a 16 ship formation, which included several aircraft that soldiered on until the final “Phantom Pharewell” in 2013.

The most famous of these was 37+01 (Image 28), which had operated with JG 71 before and would become the blue-golden “First in – Last out” Phantom of JG 71. 38+33 (Image 29) was another one, retiring in Norm 81 colour scheme, which was re-applied for the farewell celebrations in 2013. Image 30 shows 37+97, which had been the first F-4F to arrive at Hopsten, and was the solo display aircraft for JaboG 36's first airshow.

A year later, the F-4Fs of JaboG 35 and JaboG 36 participated for the first time in a Tactical Air Meet (TAM 78), which took place in June at RAF Wildenrath. Image 31 depicts 38+37 of JaboG 36 on the ramp. 38+37 was also one of the last aircraft to be retired in mid 2013.

Jagdbombergeschwader 35 (JaboG 35)

The JaboG 35 of the 1970’s started off in 1959 as JG 73, operating the Canadair Sabre Mk.6 from Pferdsfeld. There was also a JaboG 35 in original Luftwaffe planning of the 1950’s, which was established as a F-84F unit and became Leichtes Kampfgeschwader 41 (Light Combat Wing - LeKG 41) operating the Fiat G.91. JG 73 became JaboG 42 in 1962 to operate in the fighter bomber role. The transition to the G.91 in 1967 came with a further role change to ground attack, reflected in the next name change to Leichtes Kampfgeschwader 42 (LeKG 42). The transition from the “Gina” to the F-4F was associated with still another name change to Jagdbombergeschwader 35. Leichte Kampfgeschwader LeKG 41 and LeKG 43 kept flying the G.91 until arrival of the Alpha Jet. The final Geschwader, LeKG 44, was disbanded in June 1975.

Images 32 and 33 show G.91 aircraft of LeKG 42. G.91R.3 33+23 is depicted during operations from a newly built Autobahn section near Gelsdorf before handover to car traffic. In the cold war days, a number of these sections were built as emergency bases should the main bases become unusable during a conflict. 34+52 is a G.91T.3 taken during a visit to Nörvenich.

The first F-4F for JaboG 35 arrived at Pferdsfeld in the second half of 1975 and transition was completed in mid 1976. Like JaboG 36, JaboG 35 also operated in a secondary air defence role with the F-4F.

In 1978, JaboG 35 participated in TAM 78 at RAF Wildenrath together with the F-4Fs of JaboG 36. Images 34 and 35 show 38+42 and 38+58 respectively out of JaboG 35’s team.

Thanks to my late friend Michael Riedesser, I can present two further F-4Fs of JaboG 35, 37+98 and 38+22 during a base visit to Pferdsfeld in September 1980 (Images 36 and 37).

Erprobungsstelle 61 (ErpSt 61)

The Erprobungsstelle 61 (Test and Evaluation Unit 61) at Manching, which is now called WTD 61 (Wehrtechnische Diensstelle 61) operates samples of nearly each aircraft type in operation with the German armed forces to perform a broad range of test and evaluation tasks.

While ErprSt 61/WTD 61 operated a variety of F-4Fs over the years, most of which were passed from and back to the operational units, 37+15 was solely operated by WTD61 for its entire service life. It was also the first F-4F to be assigned to ErpSt 61. Image 38 shows 37+15 in a hangar at Manching early in its career in March 1975.

Beyond the 1970’s

When the last F-4F was delivered in mid 1976, it had already become apparent that the life cycle of the F-4F in German service would be much longer than originally expected. This created the need to improve the capability of the F-4F, in particular regarding the use of weapons which were not yet in use by the Luftwaffe, but were already standard on the F-4E. The “Peace Rhine” programme in the early 1980’s introduced improved radar capabilities and the ability to deploy the AIM-9L and electro-optically guided AGM’s.

A second upgrade, the Improved Combat Efficiency (ICE) programme, was performed in the 1990’s to bridge the gap until the arrival of the EF2000 Eurofighter. The ICE programme differentiated into air defence and air-ground versions and 110 and 43 aircraft were modified respectively. The air defence modifications (full ICE upgrade) created much improved target acquisition and tracking capability by replacing the AN/APQ-120(V)5 by the AN/APG-65GY radar. In combination with the incorporation of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, a beyond visual range capability was finally available in the F-4F.

The ICE upgrade produced the final change in colour scheme which was retained until the end of the F-4F service life. The Norm 90J scheme featured two different grey tones. The two different ICE upgrade standards could be distinguished by the colour of the radome, the full air defence upgrade featured a grey radome while the air-ground version retained the black radome.

The RF-4Es were retired from German service in 1994 and the two Aufklärungsgeschwader were decommissioned. A new Aufklärungsgeschwader was formed from the assets of Marinefliegergeschwader 1 (MFG 1 – navy air wing 1) at Jagel operating the Tornado equipped with centreline recce pod. The wing was designated the name AG 51 “Immelmann” and carries the former AG 52 panther emblem. It still operates the Tornado in the reconnaissance role today.

After re-unification of Germany, run-down of the Luftwaffe F-4F force started and its focus was moved to the air defence role.

  • 35th TFW was deactivated with the closure of George AFB in 1992 and the Luftwaffe Phantoms training unit in the United States transferred to the 49th FW at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. The surviving Luftwaffe F-4Es supplemented by USAF F-4Es were replaced in 1997 with F-4F aircraft from Germany. The F-4F training squadron at Holloman AFB continued until 2004.
  • JaboG 35 lost one of its two F-4F squadrons, the other squadron moved to Laage near Rostock and merged with a second squadron established from the former East German Air Force’s MiG-29s to become JG 73 “Steinhoff”. The aircraft of JaboG 35’s second squadron went to the other F-4F units. In 2004 JG 73 became the first Luftwaffe EF2000 operator.
  • JaboG 36 became Jagdgeschwader 72 (JG 72) in 1991, changing its role to air defence. A decade later, the new Luftwaffenstruktur 5 (air force structure 5) was the background for the disbandment of JG 72 as a NATO front-line unit, which was concluded in 2002. However, at the same time the Wing was tasked to maintain Europeanization training of F-4F crews trained in the US and to train flight instructors with a mandate until 2006 under the new name of “Fluglehrzentrum F-4F” (Flight Training Centre F-4F) with a reduced fleet of less than 20 aircraft. This role had previously been performed by the 3rd squadron of JG 72 and JaboG 36 since 1984. As mandated, Fluglehrzentrum F-4F was disbanded on 31st December 2005.
  • JG 74 continued to operate the F-4F until transition to the EF2000 in 2008.
  • WTD 61 flew the F-4F until the very last days of this type in German service and two of WTD 61’s aircraft were part of the Phantom Pharewell at Wittmundhafen: 37+15 as well as 38+13 in a striking black-orange colour scheme.
  • JG 71 was the last operational unit to operate the F-4F. The F-4F remained on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duty for Northern Germany until the EF2000 took over on July 1st, after the official retirement of the F-4F with the Phantom Pharewell on June 29, 2013 (Image 39 and 40)


For this personal photographic account of the introduction of the F-4 Phantom II into German service I have used background historical information from a variety of sources, predominantly from the F-40 and AirDOC ranges of books and brochures. For anybody more interested in full historical details of aircraft in post-war German service, I can thoroughly recommend these two publication series.

AirDOC – Aircraft Documentations, Luftwaffe PHANTOMs, Parts 1-3
ISBN 3-935687-06-0, 3-935687-07-9, 3-935687-08-7
AirDOC - Modern Luftwaffe Unit History Series No.01 – Fluglehrzentrum F-4F/ Jagdgeschwader 72 “Westfalen”/ Jagdbombergeschwader 36
ISBN 3-935687-50-8
F-40 Die Flugzeuge der Bundeswehr – RF-4E Phantom II 1970-1981
ISBN 3-935761-39-2

Report and photos by Helmut Richter ( view portfolio )

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First Published: 26 February 2014
Last Modified: 26 February 2014