On Friday 3 June 2022, a private group flew into Spangdahlem Air Base near Bitburg in Germany, home of the 52nd Fighter Wing of the United States Air Force (USAF): this historic event had been coordinated by the American Chamber of Commerce in Luxembourg (AMCHAM) in partnership with the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Luxembourg and Avia Sport II asbl, a private aeroclub in the Grand Duchy.
This visit was a first-of-its-kind as there has never before been an occasion that aeroclubs have been given the approval to fly into Spangdahlem Air Base. The purpose of the visit was to get a wing mission briefing, tour the facilities, interact with the assigned staff and pay homage to the wing personnel for their "steadfastness and sacrifice" to ensure we are able to live in peace and freedom.
Given the current political situation in Europe and the importance of military cooperation, the visit had a highly symbolic character as a collective sign of respect and appreciation of US contribution to joint NATO operations; the focal point was the formal presentation of flags from NATO ambassadors (stationed in Luxembourg) - as gifts on behalf of their respective nations - to the 52nd Fighter Wing leadership, representing the USAF.
A total of 35 people flew in nine private aircraft, departing from Luxembourg's international airport in Findel, to Spangdahlem Air Base near Bitburg in Germany, and returning at around 16:00. Of the 35, no less than seven were Ambassadors, with Vladimir Bärtl, Ambassador of the Czech Republic, piloting a plane himself: the others were Bernardo de Sicart Escoda (Ambassador of Spain), Thomas Lambert (Ambassador of Belgium), Alexandrina Livia Rusu (Ambassador of Romania), Claire Ligniers-Counathe (Ambassador of France), Ullrich Klöckner (Ambassador of Germany), Piotr Wojtczak (Ambassador of Poland) and Fleur Thomas (Ambassador of the United Kingdom). Thomas Barrett (Ambassador of the United States of America) also participated, but travelled by road instead. Other participants included Paul Schonenberg (Chairman and CEO of AMCHAM), John Parkhouse (CEO and Senior Partner of PWC), Alexander Flassak (CEO of Luxairport), Pierre Jaeger (Director at Direction de l'Aviation Civile), Stefan Chorus (Co-Vice Chairman of AMCHAM), Keimpe Reitsma (also Co-Vice Chairman of AMCHAM) and Gareth Reynolds (Treasurer, AMCHAM).
AMCHAM's CEO, Paul Schonenberg explained that the event had come about following the general assembly of one of the two private pilots associations of Luxembourg, Avia Sport, a year ago when a number of the private pilots expressed a great curiosity and sincere interest to know more about the United States military base across the German border near Bitburg, Germany, including a dream to visit the base, talk to the pilots and maintenance personnel and, if at all possible, to actually fly into the base (which, for reasons of security, has never happened before anywhere in the world at any USAF military base!). He explained that subsequent discussions with Ambassadors of NATO affiliated countries who are accredited in Luxembourg confirmed that there would be interest in undertaking such an event, which was also expressed by the business community in the Grand Duchy. He explained "With the unfolding of events in Ukraine over the past several months, the increased focus of attention on NATO capabilities has further raised the significance and interest related to this visit" and added "Our only regret is that we have not been joined by Minister Bausch or his senior civilian civil servant at the Ministry of Defence".
How the day evolved
Shortly after 07:30, those flying had their first briefing of the day, by Pierre Jaeger, Director of the direction de l’Aviation Civile in Luxembourg. He stressed the importance of the day’s event, explaining that it required Pentagon approval to proceed.
A total of nine aircraft departed Luxembourg’s international airport from 08:25, for the 25-minute flight to Spangdahlem. Flying over city limits, the pilots were restricted to 2,000 ft, climbing to a cruising altitude of 2,400 ft. It was a clear day and visibility was excellent, with a flight path following the Moselle river and allowing for a bird’s-eye view of windfarms and arrays of solar panel, as well as of the Cattenom nuclear power station in the distance.
Upon landing, the group was met by others who had travelled by road; once complete, the first tour stop was The Air Traffic Control tower (up 14 flights), including a presentation of the flight simulator for air traffic controllers’ training. The group learnt about the base supporting around 17,000 aircraft movements, including cargo movements of the 726th air mobility squadron (based across the runway from the 52nd Fighter Wing).
Next on the agenda was the observation of a number of F-16s taking off which, after clearing the runway, seemed almost vertical (however, it was explained that it was actually around 30 degrees); this was followed by a number of F-35s which are supporting NATO Missions.
Then there was another official photo in front of four planes (front, L-R): F-35 Lightning II, F-16 Viper, EA-18 Growler; (back): KC-135 air re-fueller.
Onto buses and the next stop was the Air Park, a small outdoor museum with half a dozen aircraft including an F-15 (as seen in the Top Gun films), a F-105 Thunderbird (used in Vietnam), etc., also the 9-11 memorial which the group was informed had been funded by circa €25k raised by the local community.
Colonel Leslie Hauck, Commander of the 52nd Fighter Wing, then gave a mission briefing, emphasising Mission (deter, defend, dominate), Airmen and Community. He explained how the base showed its strategic importance in January when Russia was building up a military presence on the border with Ukraine, which contradicted previous concerns of it potentially being closed down (with the squadron moved to Italy). He explained that the 52nd Fighter Wing is spread over different countries with some squadrons in the Netherlands, etc.
He recalled (the day after first arriving), when their airmen were involved in helping nearby towns in the devastating summer floods last summer; they were also involved in the Afghanistan evacuation, with airmen on rotation at the nearby Ramstein air base.
He also emphasised the community spirit around the Eiffel region since the 1950s, and referenced the history at the Air Park the group had just visited. He also talked about the new school opened on base a couple of years ago.
He concluded by thanking those involved in enabling the day’s historic event and acknowledging the NATO partnership, a point echoed by the US Ambassador to Luxembourg, Thomas Barrett, who also thanked Paul Schonenberg, AMCHAM chairman, for “one of his better crazy ideas” which raised a laugh.
Lunch at golf club followed at which Paul Schonenberg spoke briefly regarding what he described as a “labour of love”, referring to building bridges in the community which is what this event was about. He talked about the quality of the personnel in the air force, including the officer corps which he described as exceptional. He thanked everyone doing their job, and in the right way.
After lunch, at the 726 Air Mobility Squadron, Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Link, 726 AMS Senior Enlisted Leader, presented a brief overview of what the 150-strong squadron does. Colonel Hauck then presided over the formal, symbolic presentation of flags from the NATO ambassadors present, also from the NPSA in Capellen, and he in turn presented symbolic keys from the Flight Wing to the ambassadors.
This was a day of viewing things from a different perspective, both the physical infrastructure at Spangdahlem and also America’s contribution to peace and freedom around the world, a view shared by the ambassadors and acknowledged by their symbolic presentations.
Spangdahlem Air Base, just over the German border near Bitburg and built in the early 1950s, currently has four squadrons based there (normally there is just one). It is home of the USAF 52nd Fighter Wing which maintains, deploys and employs F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets to deter and combat aggression, in supporting ongoing operations in the Middle East and Balkans. The Wing supports the Supreme Allied Commander Europe with headquarters in Ramstein (Germany), and falls under the 3rd Air Force and US Air Forces in Europe major command. The base population is currently around 10,000 American nationals, of which 3,000 are military personnel and family members. Its mission has shifted from operating night-time reconnaissance missions to becoming the first and only all defence-suppression wing outside the US in 1991. Since 1994, Spangdahlem Air Base has received more than $285 million from Germany and $65 million by NATO, in addition to the US Department of Defence’s investment of more than $1.3 billion. It functions as an epicentre for missions in the Middle East and Africa and it supports NATO’s operations in the war in Ukraine: for this support, F-35A Lightning IIs, KC-135 Stratotankers and EA-18G Growlers are temporarily stationed there.