Wheelus – The Legend Lives On

by Col. Stephen A. Mosier, USAF (Ret.), Daedalian Life Member #375


I arrived at Bitburg AB, Germany in October 1969, joining the 53rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, one of the original NATO Tigers.   The 53rd was a Phantom F-4D squadron with a long history of service in Germany.  It was a spirited group, proud of its tradition, including a tiger emblem that had originated out of the Walt Disney studios during World War II.   

Other squadrons in the 36Th Tactical Wing included the 22nd TFS, the Buzzy Bees, called by their guys the last of the “Red Hot Fighter Squadrons”, the 23rd TFS, the Fighting Hawks, “Once a hawk, always a hawk, once a hawk is enough.”  (They said it, I didn’t.)  Finally, there were the 525th TFS, Bulldogs, “Is there a bulldog in the house, you bet your sweet ass there is!”  All good fighter squadrons.  A wing full of spirit, camaraderie, and competition.   

One of the first things I learned was the 22nd, 23rd and 53rd sat the “Q”, nuclear alert against targets in the Warsaw Pact.  The 525th did air defense, five-minute alert against Warsaw Pact intruders coming out of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.  The good news: the Bulldogs flew off alert. The bad news: the rest of the guys spent their days in the alert area, or sometimes “expanded” in the squadrons, at the gym, or perhaps having a meal in the Officers’ Club, but always ready to answer the claxon and make the fifteen-minute scramble if a nuclear release message was sent from the European command authority.  Serious business in all cases, catastrophic in the event of a nuke release! 

Along with this tasking was the job of being prepared to fly ground attack missions in support of NATO ground forces defending against Warsaw Pact forces coming through the Fulda Gap, hoping to drive through West Germany to the Atlantic Coast.  Both the nuclear and conventional tasks demanded proficiency in putting bombs on airfields, tanks, bridges, artillery and ground armies moving against U.S. and NATO allies.  Dumb bombs were all we had in the first several years I was at Bitburg.  Smart bombs were being employed in SEA, but we didn’t have them yet.  Putting a five-hundred-pound bomb precisely on a bridge abutment or a T-62 tank was a tough job. Practice—routine practice—was essential. 

That practice was hard to come by on “the continent, or the UK”.  By my count there were six ranges–Vliehors, Nordhorn, Helecturn, Siegenburg, Suippes, and Mantiago  for all of the NATO forces on the continent.  Those places were small, and the acreage required for the most simplistic range was hard to come by.  No one liked noisy, oil burning jets overhead, especially if they were diving at the ground, dropping and shooting things that sometimes came off and fell close to, or on, private property.  Not only were range space and time precious, but European weather could also be a challenge—lots of clouds, low and high, rain and low visibility.  Ranges were hard to schedule and difficult to use in the aforementioned conditions.  Consequently, the leadership of the Air Force looked for an alternative “off continent”.    

The answer for years, starting in 1948, was “property” on the southern edge of the Mediterranean Sea near the Libyan city of Tripoli, known as Wheelus Air Base.   For a little history, the site had been an Italian airfield during the days of Italian colonies in Africa, then used by Rommel’s Afrika Corps, until the British 8th Army (finally) roared out of Egypt, and with the help of the Americans during Operation Torch ran the Fox back to the continent.  Shortly after the end of hostilities, the Americans moved into North Africa, specifically, Morocco and Libya, as a means of containing the Soviet influence in the area.  

Wheelus was a Strategic Air Command base, housing bombers and tankers aimed at the Soviet areas on the edge of the Black Sea. There were interceptors to protect the bombers along with some Mace missiles, and a sizeable U.S. presence.  There were Brits and Italians in the area because of Libyan oil reserves; they brought their own infrastructure needed to tap and process oil for the continent.  The American bombers took off from nearby, striking the Axis main oil source in Ploesti.  If the Fox had beat Monty, Malta had fallen to the Luftwaffe, and the Italians had neutralized the British fleet, well, things could have been different, at least for a while.   

It became a very large, populated American base with fighter units from the UK, France, Germany and Spain brought their Sabres, Thunderjets, Voodoos, Huns, Thuds and Phantoms for air to ground rockets, dive, skip and strafe, laydowns lofts and tosses, and air to air firings at towed targets, rags or darts. There was a facility known as El Uotia less than ten minutes flying time from Wheelus, with two complete ranges for conventional gunnery and long run-ins for simulated nuclear deliveries. It also had tactical targets, representing likely Warsaw Pact vehicles and military buildings. 

Numbers seem to vary, but there were sometimes over ten thousand Americans on the base.  Local arrangements allowed children of the oil industry to attend American schools. Standard infrastructure such as police, fire, a personnel office, officer, NCO and airmen clubs, medical facilities, a commissary and base exchange, and billets for military and families, as well as for the rotating aircrew and maintenance personnel from wings at Bentwaters, Wethersfield, Woodbridge, Hahn. Spangdalhem and Bitburg.   

Temporaries were known as “Rotes” because they rotated in from home stations for two weeks several times a year.  There were also schoolteachers for the dependent children and a significant number of staff working for the British and Oil companies in the area.  It was a lot like “home” as the New York Times said when we pulled out, the Libyans even got the “bowling alley.” 

    F-105D from the 36th TFW, Bitburg, Germany, (with red tail, probably the 22nd TFS) 

The terrain and climate were Mediterranean desert – arid, hot, and with strong winds in the afternoons. They could get intense enough to cancel flying ops and have everyone seek shelter after securing loose items on the ramp, around the aircraft and in the base housing areas. The city of Tripoli was close and accessible, but the relations with the locals were not especially cordial, not bad, but not cordial, due to the difference in culture, colonial legacy, and impact of the transit of German, British and Italian armies over the area.  Off base, significant antiquities from Roman, Greek, Carthaginians, and Moorish cultures were close by and left their particular mark. There were also long stretches of beach with warm water, a treat for everyone, especially the Rotes who enjoyed a break from the damp, dismal weather on the continent. 

When fighter squadrons get together there is always competition—within squadrons, flyers were competing to see who was Top Gun, decades before Maverick and Goose.  Bets were small, typically a quarter a bomb, and a nickel for each hole in the strafe rag.  Not big bucks, but bragging rights, and with the price of drinks in those days, worth a few beers or martinis.  Martinis were a favorite of the Thud drivers—”no water, no ice and no Tripoli two-step” was a motto.  On occasion there would be turkey shoot competitions between two squadrons.  Losers paid for the party; maintenance guys included.   

There were a few legends in the squadrons: Lt. Dick from the 81st wing in his Phantom and Maj. Bill in his Hun from Hahn took the range as singles on El Uotia’s dual ranges, one on the left, one on the right for four events, mano-a -mano.  So, the story goes, the pot, jacked up late the night before was winner take all, one thousand bucks.  There was lots of drama watching the two knights off for a joust.   So, the story goes, Lt. Dick won rockets, Maj. Bill won strafe and they each fouled in the bombing events.  A tie. No money changed hands. but at least a thousand was spent on the celebration that afternoon.  Que sera, sera. 

While on the subject of weapons delivery it is necessary to spend some words on the technique used to deliver nuclear weapons, the loft or toss delivery.   In Wheelus days the nuclear weapon was big and heavy, fifteen feet long, and weighing in at just under seventeen hundred pounds.  To deliver it you also had to work out the escape procedure—how to get away from a blast much bigger than Hiroshima or Nagasaki.   

Bombers came in high, so they achieved some displacement from altitude differential. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dr Strangelove and Slim Pickens riding one in you get the picture. Fighters came in low for survivability and had to get displacement in a different way.  Using visual and radar cues, fighters started a pull up several miles from the target, from around three hundred feet above the ground, or lower. Some rudimentary instruments were used to measure time and angle so the bomb was automatically released at the right point in space. It would then travel toward the target and arrived within about a thousand feet from it before detonation.   

In the meantime, the fighter would be performing an Immelmann, or part of a Cuban Eight maneuver to get going in the opposite direction and avoid the shock wave and thermal blast of a many kiloton weapon.  There was a note in the F-4 tech manual saying something like, ‘failing to achieve necessary safe escape distance can cause parts of the flight control surfaces to melt, and loss of aircraft stability. The bomb flies toward the target on an arc or in some cases, goes straight up, runs out of airspeed, then tumbles and falls nearly straight down.   

A lofting or tossing pilot had to be precise on airspeed, pitch and bank angle to achieve proper release parameters.  You needed some place like Wheelus or the Nellis range complex in Nevada to practice these deliveries. Small deviations could create gross errors in final impact of a two-thousand-pound object on an errant delivery.  There is a reason they say “close only counts in horseshoes and nuclear war”.   

F-4D from one of the German Bases in the Eifel over the dunes 

There are many stories: Gen. Merrill McPeak was in a flight of Huns in 1961, including Gen. Spike Dugan, when they were captains, having an emergency recall in the midst of a range mission.  Cecil LeFevers was leading because the Soviets had just started the shutdown of Berlin.  Imagine, two future CSAFs on the same sortie! A lot of good men made the Rote to Wheelus.   

For the 53rd Tigers, then Captain Dugan was a member of the 79th TFS Tigers, and instrumental in getting the NATO Tigers off the ground. As the squadron intel officer, I had a “filmsy” in the safe from USAFE authorizing a meeting of RAF, FAF and USAFE Tiger units to “further relationships, tactical knowledge and readiness among NATO fighter squadrons”.  Yep, that’s definitely what it did on a joint trip to the Crazy Horse Saloon from Cambrai, France in 1972. 

Another story recounts a fight in the bar involving a future air force general and a future dictator named Gaddafi.   The Libyan Air Force shared the officers club bar with the Americans.  Mostly it was parallel play, but there are legends of friction like this one. It seems like many of the bartenders, all Libyans, were one eyed. The legend says their mothers put their eye out to keep them out of the Italian Army back in the day.  

There is another story about an ejection on the range with both crewmembers surviving but being beat up badly due to the high winds on landing. During the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, training sorties stood down and some units went home early to avoid any perceived or actual alignment with either side, changing the balance of power in the Middle East forever.  Another unintended consequence of the ‘67 war was the introduction of hardened shelters for both NATO and Warsaw Pact aircraft. These elevated the need for precision weapons to a key priority for every air force. 

I noted the beaches earlier.  They were great refreshers from the continental weather.  One guy noted he spent more time on the beach at Wheelus than he did anywhere else in his Air Force career, including a later tour at MacDill. A feature of a Wheelus beach experience was the squadron blab jug.  This was a plastic water container routinely use to take potable water from the base to quarters on the local economy.  It became a blab jug when filled with a mixture of mostly alcohol and a smidge of fruit juices that varied by squadron.  It was said it took only a few swigs of blab in the bright Med sunshine, and “Blab” was all most could say.  The blab parties were weekend events to allow for recovery.  Twelve hours between bottle and throttle, as the hardcore said.   

There was one notable blab-driven event of special notoriety.  The USAFE Safety staff published a magazine, Air Scoop, distributed mainly on the bases in the command. It did find its way in small quantities throughout the Air Force.  One summer, they decided to visit Wheelus and do a feature on the hazards of summer.  What better backdrop than a hot, dry exotic location with a beach?  

The feature shows the hazards of hot work on a flight line (like at Nellis, Luke or George back in the CONUS), what wind and sand can do to jet engines and electronic systems (we were reminded of this in Desert Storm—apparently our lessons learns logged got buried in the Air University Library), and of course the danger of sunburn and sunstroke on a beach.  The team of safety specialists, journalists and photographers hit Wheelus running and captured narrative and candid photos for the next edition.   

Photographers were blind to the beach scene that included fighter pilots as well as some of the schoolies and secretaries of the European oil companies sharing the seaside experience.  Later, some wise editor in Wiesbaden decided the picture had a little more emphasis on beach blanket bingo than was prudent.  That edition, referred to by some, as “Sun, Sand and Sex on the Med”, never made circulation.  Wise men do wise things.  

I have included a recipe for blab below.  Most Rotes I know say this is way too complex and most batches were made using less formal apportionments. Nevertheless, the 53rd tried it in a jug surviving the forced departure for Wheelus at another Rote location, Incirlik, AKA the “Lick” that we used to sub for Wheelus. Yes, it was potent, but the environment was not even close.  In 1970 Adana, the Turkish town just outside the gate of Incirlik, was known as the only city of a quarter million without a radar return.  The beach was not close, it was rocky and there were no schoolies—or oilies. 

Like many things of the past, Wheelus ended for American air forces in fall of 1969, just before I got to Bitburg.  If you know any history, you know the King was overthrown by Major Gaddafi of the Libyan Air Force, and he demanded our departure.  There is a story of the face-off between the then commander of Wheelus, Colonel Chappie James, where he and the new sheriff in town faced each other up close with holstered guns and what could really have been a spot of history ended with a withdrawal of the U.S. Air Force from a base used by the Italian, German, British, and American military over some sixty years.   

If you remember Operation Eldorado Canyon, you’ll know President Regan sent some F-111s out of the UK to strike the base in retribution for the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin which killed several American servicemen.  A last rote for the 20th TFW out of the UK.  Today Wheelus is Mitiga International Airport.  Along with some airliners, you’ll probably find a potpourri of Soviet, French and American aircraft on the tarmac where USAFE pilots roted in for training, sun and sand.   

Note: I have taken information and stories from a variety of sources, New York Times articles, AFCS academic papers, General McPeak’s trilogy, Wikipedia, Facebook, and the memories of several nameless Rotes in assembling this story. Also, Jeff Platte, a high school student at the “Heath” and later an A-10 guy in the UK, and thanks to Mark Bass, the son of a career Air Force officer for his sharing of Wheelus artifacts, including some classic 8mm movies of his dad and comrades on Rotes to North Africa.