Above & Beyond: The Bridge that Did Not Fall
Memorable flights and other adventures
- By Darrel Whitcomb
- Air & Space magazine, July 2008
(Page 2 of 3)
In 1992, I was in Frankfurt on an airline trip and had a free day. On a stroll through Mainz, I went into a bookstore and picked up a map of Germany. Like all maps, it had been modified to remove the old border between West and East Germany. But I knew the terrain well, and, recognizing the train line and conjoining highway, I followed them to their junction at the bridge—my Thuringer Wald target. I found my old base at Sembach and retraced the path we would have flown from the base to the bridge.
I had to “fly” that mission.
I rented a car, and marked our route of flight on the map, using the circles, triangles, and squares with which we laid out a military mission. It was a short drive to my old base, which had been deactivated. I stared at the hardened aircraft shelters, large domed concrete structures. They could be destroyed only by a direct hit with a powerful bomb.
I drove northeast, passing south of Frankfurt, and stopped along what had been the border between the two Germanys. Walking along the remnants of the wall, I watched a team removing land mines. I also climbed into one of the guard towers that had been maintained by the East Germans and thought about what that tower represented.
I could feel myself tense up. Certainly there was no reason to do so; everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. But I still felt I was in enemy territory. What would we have seen from 500 feet or lower, traveling at 350 mph? Part of the flight would have been across a wide valley. I looked up at the ridges on each side and envisioned the anti-aircraft guns and missile sites the enemy would have set up there.
I drove into the hills that surrounded the target. Approaching a ridge, I remembered this would have been the point at which I would have split my flight for the attack. Then I rounded a turn, and there was the bridge—old, tired, and still in use.
I stopped the car and got out. As two stout horses pulling a hay wagon passed by, the farmer waved and shouted a greeting in German, which I returned in English. He gave me a surprised look and continued on. Hearing a train approaching, I walked up a path to the bridge. As the train passed, the ground rumbled slightly.
I laid out my map. There was higher terrain to the east, but the ridge fell off to the north. I could envision how we would have attacked from different directions. I could trace how we would have maneuvered our aircraft and where the bombs would have fallen. I could see them hit the bridge, and the bridge falling on the road below.