Blue Wings 2020 – Nörvenich AB, Germany
On August 15th, 2020 an official announcement from the Heyl Ha’Avir (Israeli Air Force - IAF) announced that they would partipate in a joint exercise with the German Luftwaffe from Nörvenich airbase near Cologne between August 17th and August 28th. During this exercise they would train with the local Eurofighter Typhoons from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 ‘Boelcke’. This was to become the first such exercise in history.
That something was going to happen was already noted by the local spotter community several weeks before the start of the exercise as Nörvenich received several visitors from the Israeli Air Force. On August 6th the first two Lockheed C130J-30 ‘Shimshon’, the IAF designation for the Hercules, from 103 ‘The Elephants’ Squadron based at Nevatim, arrived at Nörvenich to deliver the first equipment required for the deployment. Additional C130-flights were noted on August 12th and 13th.
The upcoming arrival of 6 Lockheed-Martin F16C/D ‘Barak’ fighters caused quite some activity on the local spotterforums, as this would be ‘the’ highlight of the year for many of us in 2020, a year in which all aviation related events were cancelled due to the Corona-pandemic. It was therefore no surprise that on August 17th hundreds of spotters had gathered near Nörvenich, this under the watchful eye of an impressive police force and… a couple of ‘unknown’ men driving around in a white Volkswagen. Later these guys turned out to be Israeli Air Force security people.
Around midday the first formation of three F16C’s from 101 ‘The First Fighter Squadron’ based at Hatzor accompanied by two Eurofighter Typhoon arrived over Nörvenich. The first trio was joined quickly by another three, this time F16D’s from 105 ‘The Scorpion Squadron’ also from Hatzor. Before landing they made a flypast over the airbase accompanied by Luftwaffe Eurofighters. In recent years it has become relatively easy to link the IAF-aircraft to a specific squadron as all of them carry magnificent artwork on the tail.
Each formation of F16s was accompanied by a Boeing KC707 ‘Re’em’ tanker from 120 ‘The International Squadron’ based at Nevatim. A third tanker was also noted, but this aircraft returned to Israel after it had topped up the fuel tanks of the 6 fighters over the Mediterranean Sea. The ageing KC707 are converted Boeing 707 passenger and cargo aircraft, and are in fact larger than the more commonly seen KC135 tankers that are still being operated by the US Air Force and the French Armée de l’Air. The arrival of the KC707s brought back some nice memories amongst the older spotters, as they are still fitted with the not-so-environmental-friendly ‘smoking’ engines from the good old days !
The KC707’s were not the only support aircraft noted on the arrivals’ day. In between another Lockheed C130H ‘Karnaf’ from 131 ‘The Yellow Bird Squadron’ in a nice desert camouflage had arrived. The exact designation of this aircraft is still a bit of a mystery at the moment, as originally it was used as a KC130 tanker, but after a mishap the tanker equipment appears to have been removed and it is now used as a standard C130 cargo aircraft. Final two aircraft to arrive at Nörvenich were two Gulfstream-variants, a Gulfstream G550 ‘Nachshon Aitam’ AEW&C aircraft and a Gulfstream V ‘Nachshon Shavit’ SIGINT/ELINT variant both from 122 ‘Nachshon Squadron’ also based at Nevatim. The first aircraft was wearing a white and blue colorscheme and would remain at Nörvenich for the whole duration of the exercise, the second ‘all white’ Gulfstream (even the registration number is not visible from the outside) was used as VIP-transport and carried the Commander of the Israeli Air Force and was escorted by two Luftwaffe Typhoons.
During the first week of the exercise only the first Gulfstream would remain in Nörvenich, all the other support aircraft returned to their homebase in Israel.
For many the arrival of Israeli Air Force aircraft for a joint exercise with the Germany Luftwaffe was initially a big surprise, but the deployment was not only dedicated to ‘training’ but also to ‘remembering’ and strengthening the ties between the IAF and other nations. This was clearly illustrated on the second day of the deployment when a joint Israeli-German formation took off from Nörvenich to perform fly-by’s over two landmarks in Germany that have a very high importance in the recent history of Israel.
The first location was the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site where a ceremony was held in the presence of several German and Israel officials to remember the thousands of Jews, political prisoners and others that were murdered at this location during the Second World War. Dachau was also the location where the Nazis performed several ‘medical’ experiments on people, an estimated total of 41500 didn’t survive !
The second location was the former airbase of Füstenfeldbrück near Munich. In 1972 Germany organized the Olympic Games in Munich and on September 4th a group of Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic village and held a group of 11 Israeli athletes hostage for several days. On the evening of September 5th, 9 hostages (2 athletes had already been murdered) and the 8 terrorists left the Olympic village in an attempt to escape from Germany. Two Bell UH1D helicopters of the ‘Bundesgrenzschutz’ would fly them to Fürstenfeldbrück where they would board a plane out of Germany. However the German Police tried to liberate the hostages when they arrived at Fürstenfeldbruck, which turned out in a complete nightmare. A heavy battle began between the police and the terrorists, during which all 9 athletes and several of the Palestinians died.
A typical day of operational flying consisted of two training flights, one wave in the morning and one in the afternoon. For the morning wave the complete Israeli detachment of 6 F16s and the Gulfstream took off, followed by a varying number of TLG31 Eurofighter Typhoon.
Each mission lasted for about an hour after which the aircraft returned to their operating base. The afternoon wave lasted more or less the same amount of time, but in most cases only four Israeli fighters would participate, leaving one C and one D in the shelters. The IAF F16Cs differ quite considerably from the standard F16Cs as they incorporate Israeli-produced ECM systems. One of the ‘external’ differences is the extension at the base of the vertical stabilizor (similar to the one on Belgian, Norwegian and Dutch F16A where the brake parachutes are housed) where some of the avionics are fitted.
Also the Israeli F16D differ quite extensively from the standard D’s. Where most air forces use the F16D in the conversion and training role, the Israelian aircraft have an operational role. The backseat is occupied by a Weapons Systems Officer who operates the avionics and the aircraft is fitted with a box-like dorsal fairing which is believed to contain ‘Wild Weasel’ equipment used to detect radar emissions of hostile radar sites, the F16D is also fitted with a weapons system able to delivery ‘smart bombs’ operated by a side-stick operated by the backseater. In addition to these internal systems the F16Ds at Nörvenich also flew with the external Rafael Litening AT targeting pod, the newest version of this system.
The most secretive aircraft from the IAF that deployed to Nörvenich was the Gulfstream G550 Nachshon Aitam. The aircraft is based upon the Gulfstream G550 GV-SP business jet, and can be recognized from the outside by its extensive modifications on nose, fuselage and tail section to house the AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning & Control) mission equipment developed by IAI/Elta. Two such aircraft are operated by 122 ‘Nachshon Squadron’.
During the second week of the deployment the Israeli contingent participated in the MAGDAY exercise. These MAGDAYs are regular training events for the Multination Air Group, for which Germany is the framework nation. Each event is comprised of a two-day preparation phase and evaluates progress made on interoperability between the participating nations. This year (due to Corona) the other air forces operated from their own bases. Apart from the homebased Eurofighter Typhoon we saw only a few other Luftwaffe types visiting Nörvenich, including an Airbus A400M Atlas and an overflight of a NATO Boeing E3A Sentry AWACS, but it’s not clear if these actually participated in the MAGDAY.
For the second week the Israeli Air Force detachment was enlarged with the return of two Boeing KC707 ‘Re’em’ tankers, serialled 272 (which we already saw in week 1) and 275 which was a new number in the spotter logbooks.
Three of the aircraft noted during our visits were of particular interest. Eurofighter 30+96 wore the special colorscheme ‘Sword of Boelcke’ that was applied earlier this year and is the new ‘flagship’ of Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 ‘Boelcke’ and was seen several times during the exercise. Another special paintscheme was the one that applied on Eurofighter Typhoon 31+49 for the upgrade to ‘Tranche 4’ of the Luftwaffe Typhoon. The third is Bell-Dornier UH1D Iroquois, 70+87, which is one of the last operational Hueys in the Luftwaffe. This Nörvenich-based helicopter is used as a Search-and-Rescue helicopter and will remain operational until the end of 2020, by then it will be replaced by the Airbus H145 of which seven were ordered in 2018 for use as SAR helicopters at Nörvenich, Niederstetten and Holzdorf.
By the end of the second week the exercise and the deployment were terminated and the first preparations for the return of the Israeli aircraft were being made. On August 27th four Lockheed C130 aircraft arrived to pick up the people and the equipment. One of the aircraft, serial 545, a KC130H Karnaf suffered an inflight engine failure and arrived at Nörvenich with only three engine running. The problem was resolved fairly quick and the aircraft departed the following day.
The Blue Wings 2020 deployment was one of the few events that we were able to visit this year. It was one of the first times that the Israel Air Force participated in an European exercise, something that started only a few years ago. Hopefully we can see more of them in the upcoming years as it is one of the more interesting air forces at this moment. This is also brings to a close a very short and bizar year for all of us, where plane spotting was limited to only a few short trips in our own region. What 2021 will bring still remains to be seen…..
Text : Laurent Heyligen
Photos : Dirk Geuns, Laurent Heyligen, Edwin Huskens, Tim Van den Boer, Dr.Stefan Petersen/Bundeswehr.