German pilots train in Southwest skies
TWIG - Millions of Americans have served at U.S. military bases in Germany since the end of World War II, with many GIs recalling happy memories of strong community support from their German neighbors.
For nearly ten years now, a select group of German servicemen and -women have also experienced firsthand what it means to be welcomed warmly by long-time allies.
German pilots stationed in the United States for flight training in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and across the Southwest have enjoyed American hospitality, struck up life-long friendships with their neighbors — and provided an economic windfall to southwestern communities.
Since 1996, the German Air Force Tactical Training Center has been a tenant unit at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo. Around 700 German aircrew and support personnel currently serve at the center, which is home to 35 Tornado and 15 F4-F Phantom aircraft.
The center, which is Germany’s largest overseas military installation, has long provided an economic windfall to New Mexican communities.
Germany invested about $170 million just to build hangars, maintenance facilities and noise-buffering facilities for its aircraft. And as tenants at the U.S. base, Germany pays its own utilities and operating costs, meaning that the German government — not the U.S. taxpayer — pays the entire cost of the program.
But although Tactical Training Center in Alamogordo is relatively new, German pilots have trained in the skies over the American Southwest for more than 40 years — first at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and then at George Air Force Base in California until its closure in 1992.
Germany’s fighter pilots also train at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, while others go to bases across the Southwest as foreign exchange pilots.
"Germans have been training in the United States for 20 years, and we expect they will be training productively in the United States for decades to come," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said at ceremonies marking the activation of the New Mexico training center back in 1996.
The Southwest offers German pilots ideal flying weather and the wide expanses of airspace needed for exercises. "There are 300 days of good flying weather each year, and the airspace isn’t as condensed here, so there are better training opportunities," explained German Air Force Captain Peter Schmitt, a foreign exchange pilot at Cannon Air Force Base in September, 2003.
Germany is just twice as big as New Mexico — but it’s population is nearly 50 times larger, meaning that wide-open spaces are in short supply. In addition, the overcast skies that plague Germany are hardly ever a problem in the Southwest.
At the New Mexico center, German pilots train with instructors in two aircraft: the Tornado and the F4 Phantom. The Tornado is a two-seater plane used for offensive air operations. The Phantom, which is used for air defense, has been around for more than 40 years and will soon be replaced by the new Eurofighter.
But besides training with instructors, some German pilots also get to face off against their American counterparts in simulated combat missions in what many say is a highlight of their time in the United States.
Speaking to a Marine Corps reporter in 2003, Lieutenant Maik Dietz, a 22-year-old training as a foreign exchange pilot in California, called the simulated dogfights "pretty cool."
"It’s our final phase of training in America," he said. "We
don’t want to leave."
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