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  • Writer's pictureFrank Visser

2007 Flight Systems on the move

Updated: Feb 3, 2018

In the second article about target towing in Germany Frank Visser and Ludo Mennes report on the

A-4N Skyhawks of BAE Flight Systems based at Wittmund Air Base, Germany.

To Germany

Since the early Nineties the white painted jet aircraft of Flight Systems have been a familiair sight in the skies over Europe. Almost 25 years ago in 1983 the company started its target towing activities for the United States Air Forces in Europe, flying from the airport of Hurn near Bournemouth in the UK. However this contract was ended in 1988 and the company switched its activities to flying for the German Armed Forces. In 1991 Flight Systems was awarded a 5-years contract by the German Bundesambt für Wehrtechnik und Beschaffung (BWB), the office within the German Ministry of Defense being responsible for purchasing and contracting. The company moved to its new location at Wittmund Air Base in Ostfriesland Germany, home to Jagdgeschwader 71 ‘Richthofen’. Wittmund has been its homebase ever since as the five-years contract with the Germans has been extended for the third time in 2006. Due to its long presence at Wittmund Flight Systems is also known as the third squadron of Jagdgeschwader 71, the ‘Dartstaffel 713’.

Since February 2002 Flight Systems has been flying the agile A-4N Skyhawk. This aircraft traded places with the four TF-100F Super Sabres, which were bought from the Danish Air Force back in the Eighties.

Originally four A-4N Skyhawks (with registration N431FS, N432FS, N434FS and N437FS) were bought from the Israeli Airforce. The aircraft were overhauled by Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd., the radar and guns were removed and the aircraft were painted in their new white colorscheme with blue cheatline. The aircraft flew to Wittmund in October 2001, after the FAA required stop over in the U.S.A. for title transfer.

Ready for another mission in the autumn. This N437FS is one of four former Israeli Air Force A-4N Skyhawks used by BAe Flight Systems flying in the white blue colour scheme

Expanding activities

Due to the expansion of activities in Germany two additional A-4N’s were bought in 2006 from Advanced Training Systems International (ATSI) Inc. located at Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa, Arizona.

Another mission is over for the N268WL. Together with the N262WL these aircraft were bought in 2006 due to the expansion of BAe Flight Systems activities in Germany. They arrived on 21 May 2007 at Wittmund Air Base.

These aircraft, with registration N262WL and N268WL have kept flying in their original ATSI colour scheme (grey and sand/brown camouflage), giving some extra flavour to the existing white painted fleet.

After thorough inspection and modification, whereby the aircraft received new wiring for the target towing equipment, they were declared operational in the summer and have been flying since. With the new aircraft also extra personnel arrived. One additional pilot and one technician were newly hired, bringing the total crew to 18 persons. Four full-time and three part-time pilots are working for Flight Systems, four of them are Germans who have been flying the F-4F Phantom and Tornado in German service. Two part-time pilots live in the U.S.A. and come to Germany a couple of times per year.

Eleven mechanics and target technicians, both from German and American origin, support the activities technically. They are all highly qualified and capable of doing most of the work themselves.

Every 150 flight hours the airframes are intensively checked, the engines are inspected every 750 and 2500 (major overhaul) flight hours by a company in New Zealand. Except for one aircraft which has already reached the 4000 flying hours mark, all other aircraft have around 3500 flying hours on their clocks. The Flight Systems program in Germany is led by the American site manager and pilot Cliff Gion, who has been in Germany since 2001. Cliff Gion flew in the USMC for 20 years and retired as

a Lieutenant Colonel. He has almost 5000 flying hours on different aircraft of which 4300 on different models of the A-4 Skyhawk.

Target towing

Since 1991 Flight Systems has been involved in target towing activities for the fighter units of the German Armed Forces. The pilots and crews train the use of their cannons on the moving targets.

During the Super Sabre period and until 2005 the company used the RMU-10 target winch pod and the orange coloured four meter long arrow-shaped Dornier SK-10 target dart. After each target towing mission the dart - in case it was not destroyed - was dropped in the sea . “As one can imagine”, said Cliff Gion, “the local fishermen were not too happy with these remains in their fishing nets. For that reason a new system, which would be bio-degradable in seawater, was developed in co-operation with Dornier.” The new systems consists of the Southwest Meggit RM-30 reeling system with camera, and a Dornier Do-SK6 BSH recoverable tow target including an electronic SETA-3 BSH radar scorer to register the hits and (near)misses of the bullets. The scores are registered on a display inside the cockpit and transmitted to the shooting aircraft by radio. The Do-SK6 BSH is reeled out during the flight to a length of nearly 500 meters. Ten meters behind this tow target system a six meters long and a half a meter wide orange sack is towed, which is being shot at by the aircraft. The RM-30 reeling system is flown under the centerline of the A-4’s, the Do-SK6 BSH is mounted on its left side. After the tow target has locked to the reeling system the sack is dropped automatically by the pilot within two minutes and will totally dissolve in the seawater within a short time. The missions are flown in designated Temporary Reserved Airspaces (TRA) over the North Sea (ED-D 44/46 and ED-D41, Baltic Sea (ED-D47) and Sardinia (LID-40B) at flight altitudes between 6.000 and 20.000 feet. The contract with the Germans requires that the aircraft fly for 45 minutes in the TRA with one aircraft. Because of the possibility of mechanical problems or target damage Flight Systems has one spare aircraft ready to be airborne within ten minutes. One to two times per year two aircraft fly out to Decimomannu, Sardinia to support the gun training activities of the German Air Force.

New activities

After each towing mission the sack is dropped automatically by the pilot and will totally dissolve in the seawater within a short time. If the dropping of the sack fails the A-4N Skyhawk is forced to land with the sack towed behind the aircraft as can be seen in this picture. (photo: BAe Flight Systems).

Since the introduction of the Skyhawk the number of activities has steadily grown and switched from only target towing towards other missions. In 2005 the aircraft flew 645 flight hours and in 2006 672 flight hours. Under the current 5-years contract Flight Systems has a maximum of 960 flight hours per year of which roughly 25% is spent on target towing and 75% on other missions. The majority of flying hours (almost 60%) is spent on the training of personnel of the Ground Control Intercept (GCI) school of the Luftwaffe. Flight Systems will fly two aircraft on a one-versus-one scenario, where one aircraft will act as an intruder entering the airspace and the other as the interceptor. The Skyhawks will be active in the TRA for up to 90 minutes flying time with a fueltank under each wing. This way of training interceptions is a much cheaper alternative than sending up two F-4F Phantoms of Jagdgeschwader 71, responsible for the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in Northern German airspace.

Roughly 100 flight hours per year are spent on different missions. Flight Systems is involved in the training of the anti-aircraft gunners of the Heer (German Army). The aircraft regularly fly over the ranges at Todendorf and Putlos at the Baltic Sea, where they are being used for radar tracking purposes.

One to two times per year two aircraft fly out to Decimomannu, Sardinia to support the gun training activities of the German Air Force. Here two A-4N Skyhawks cross the Alps on their way to Sardinia. (photo: BAe Flight Systems).

With the growing number of EF-2000 Typhoons entering service in the Luftwaffe the Skyhawks are occasionally asked to fly missions together for radar tracking purposes. Another task involves the missile attack simulation for the Marine (German Navy), where two Skyhawks fly missile attack profiles against ships. On a regular mission one Skyhawk will act as an approaching aircraft firing an anti-ship missile. The aircraft will bank away after the firing, where as the other will continue on the simulated attack course on a height of 300 feet towards the ship.

The last task is the joint training of German and French Forward Air Controllers (FAC), where the Skyhawks fly simulated attack patterns to designated targets. The aircraft have no possibility of using laser, however the attack simulation offers a realistic scenario for the training personnel.

Taxiing back to the BAe Flight Systems’ platform on a wet tarmac. Since February 2002 four of these white/blue A-4N Skyhawks are based at Wittmund Air Base. Due to its long presence at Wittmund

BAe Flight Systems is also known as the third squadron of Jagdgeschwader 71, the ‘Dartstaffel 713’.


Although the current contract runs until December 2011 and the tender process will start all over again Cliff Gion is positive about the future. “ The arrival of the two new aircraft offers us the possiblity to fulfill the requirements made by the BWB of having four aircraft ready at any time, as well as looking into new business opportunities. The Skyhawk is a realistic and relative cheap alternative and has great potential for further exploitation. For example the aircraft have no wiring yet for electronic warfare activities but the possibilities are there.”

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