Above & Beyond: The Bridge that Did Not Fall

Memorable flights and other adventures

A bridge overpass in the bucolic East German countryside would have been the primary target for a flight of four Fairchild anti-tank A-10s on a 1987 cold war mission. The bridge still stands. (Darrel Whitcomb)
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I remember my assigned cold war mission very clearly. In July 1987, I was directed to lead a flight of four Fairchild A-10s to strike a bridge-overpass in the Thuringer Wald, a mountain range about 100 miles northeast of Frankfurt in what was then East Germany. The brick and concrete structure supported a train line that was expected to be used by units of the Soviet 8th Guards Army if Warsaw Pact forces invaded Europe. The train track passed over a key road; by destroying the structure, we could cut that track, and the resulting rubble would block the road below.

My plan was simple: Over the target, we would attack out of a circle, with each aircraft striking from a different direction, creating the most problems for those defending it.

My flight then went before a certification board. Our squadron commander said he was satisfied with our preparations. The senior NATO officer turned to an intelligence officer, who noted that we would likely destroy the target, but there was a good chance that two of our A-10s would be shot down. Enemy units in the area would defend it well.

We four pilots eyed one another uncomfortably. We all knew that once we were that deep in enemy territory, there would be no chance of rescue. If downed, our fate would be capture or death.

I had started my flying career as an Air Force pilot, graduating from flight training during the war in Southeast Asia. I subsequently served in the conflict as an OV-10 Bronco and O-1 Bird Dog forward air controller, then returned home to duty as a jet instructor. With the force reductions in the mid-1970s, I left active duty for an airline career, but continued flying with the Air Force Reserve. By the 1980s, I was flying A-10s, the anti-tank fighter-bombers, at a base just south of Kansas City, Missouri. I loved it. And at the height of the cold war, we had a real mission: Each summer, we deployed to Air Force bases in West Germany and served with active-duty units.

In 1987, we were at Sembach Airbase, southwest of Frankfurt, replacing a unit so it could return to England for a break from frontline duty. We assumed responsibility for alert missions; in the event of war, we had to be ready to launch aircraft on short notice to attack pre-selected targets in East Germany.

On that July day, when we learned that half of us might be shot down, we shuffled out of the briefing room and resumed our training flights. Preparing to return to our base in Missouri, we relinquished our assigned missions to the unit we had stood in for and headed home.

A few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. With it went the Warsaw Pact and the threat that Western Europe might be invaded. Some deep thinkers said it was the resolve of NATO to defend itself that had prevented World War III.

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.

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