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Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 1999 /24 Tishrei 5760

Bob Greene

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German warplanes in American skies --
WHEN I SAW the Associated Press bulletin move across the wire last week, I took a quick look at the calendar to make certain that the date was not April 1.

But it wasn't, of course. This was autumn, not April Fool's Day, and the story appeared to be real.

It came out of New Mexico:

"CARLSBAD, N.M. -- Four German air force pilots parachuted to safety after their two jets collided over southeastern New Mexico during a training mission.

"The planes were from a German flight training facility at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, about 100 miles northwest of the crash site over Sitting Bull Falls. . . .

"The two Tornado strike-attack planes, which belong to the German air force, were on a training mission at midlevel altitudes. Each plane carried a student pilot and an instructor. . . .

"The German Luftwaffe has trained its pilots at Holloman for years, and its Flying Training Center there currently has about 580 military personnel and about 25 Tornado airplanes."

So what the story was saying was that the Luftwaffe has set up its own flight center on American soil. That the German air force is flying maneuvers -- with hundreds of its military men involved -- over the United States.

I called the Pentagon. The person who took my call said, "Yes, the German air force has a fighter-plane operation out there, if I'm not mistaken." He referred me to the U.S. military command post at Holloman Air Force Base.

There, a base spokesman -- Robert Pepper -- said that the Luftwaffe does, indeed, have an operation on the grounds of the U.S. air base, right in the continental U.S. More than one operation, actually.

"There is what we refer to as the foreign military sales program," he said. "We train German air crews to fly the F-4 Phantom. The planes belong to the Germans -- they bring their planes over here, and they pay for their training."

The German air force, he said, also has a tactical training center in New Mexico. "They do continuation training here," he said. "They fly the German Tornado fighter plane, and work on advanced (combat) tactics."

He said that there is "a fighter weapons instructor course" for the Luftwaffe on the grounds of the U.S. air base: "It's sort of like `Top Gun' -- they learn to be instructors.

"And then there are the basic courses, to teach the German pilots straight out of pilot training and out of navigation school." The Luftwaffe, he said, has its own commander on the base, to whom the German air force pilots report.

Are they flying planes bearing the insignia of the German military? "Yes," he said. "The planes have the German iron cross painted on them."

So German warplanes are flying over the United States, manned by Luftwaffe crews. Does that not seem a little odd?

"Why?" Pepper said.

"Oh, I don't know," I said. "World War II. World War I. I think I recall reading somewhere that quite a few Americans lost their lives fighting the German military."

"We fought against a lot of people," Pepper said. "The Germans are our allies now. There is a very strong partnership between the United States and Germany."

Still, there would seem to be a difference between being on the same political side -- and having the Luftwaffe flying missions over American towns.

"(The Luftwaffe pilots) fit in very well here," Pepper said. "They're very much welcomed into the community."

The German military likes to train its fighter pilots in New Mexico "because of the weather," Pepper said. "If you're conducting a training program, and you want it to start and end on schedule, the weather we have here is a big help. The Germans like that. And it's a good place to do low-level flying -- Germany is only 13 percent larger in square miles than the state of New Mexico, but it is comparatively very populous. Because of that, the German air force would have to fly low-level maneuvers over its cities if it did this kind of training there."

Which means that Americans get the treat of looking up and seeing warplanes with the Luftwaffe insignia, manned by Luftwaffe crews, screaming overhead.

Pepper said that I was free to apply for permission to come out and take a look -- but that even if I got U.S. approval, the German government would probably have to sign off on it too.

Maybe this is just a case of time marches on. Maybe this is just a case of a changing world.

And if enough American veterans of World War II assure me that all of this is just fine with them, perhaps I can be persuaded.

But not until then.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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