Richthofen's memory lives on in jet squadron
“Manfred von Richthofen is still a model for our fighter wing today,” said Heinz Nowak, a retired colonel and a former commodore of the Richthofen Jagdgeschwader 71 (Fighter Wing 71) in Wittmund, Germany.
“He not only was Germany’s most famous pilot, but also a born leader, tactician and teacher of his pilots. Richthofen led his wing into air battle, watched his flyers in action and analyzed later together with them mistakes and shortcomings. He wrote a manual of air fighting tactics, that is still exemplary today,” said Nowak, who was commodore of the wing from 1989-93.
In Richthofen’s own words: “No tricks, no gimmicks, just the energy and will to attack straight forward and follow through. Anything else is rubbish.”
Fighter Wing 71 is near the small town of Wittmund, close to the North Sea, in northern Germany. The unit proudly carries the name of the “Red Baron” and displays an “R” on its F-4F Phantom fighter jets. The pilots wear a likeness of his red triplane on their shoulder patches.
The wing has two squadrons, 711 and 712, and two of their 30 McDonnell Douglas F-4F Phantoms II are on alert 24 hours a day to protect German airspace.
The pilots and weapons officers of the Richthofen fighter wing are the elite of the German military.
Its members have gone through extensive training for eight to 10 years in Germany, the United States and Canada. The training has always been tough and demanding.
“[It’s] training that was so tough that only four out of 100 students who went through the first examinations make it into a jet,” said Nowak. “I should know,” he adds with a smile, “because I went through it."
The fighter wing, with its about 1,500 military and civilian employees, is a whole town itself within the town of Wittmund. It operates squadrons for weather, weapons and maintenance, for electronics, transport and supply. It has its own doctors, firefighters and teachers and two priests.
Once a year in April, a Richthofen reunion is held in Wittmund at the base, bringing together today’s officers, town officials and former members of the wing. This year’s get-together was combined with the fighter wing’s 40th birthday in Wittmund.
In the mid-1960s, the base opened a permanent exhibit that details the historical background of Richthofen’s Fighter Wing 71. It highlights the history of the Red Baron and includes a life-size model of his famous red triplane.