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Skip Hit - Low level flying in West Germany


Seems a long time since we had enemies we could trust!  The Cold War was real: a long, bi-polar stand-off stretching from the end of the Second World War until 1989 - when the time was right for The Wall to be taken down.  It was a time fraught with real uncertainty and both real and perceived risks affecting the entire world under the sword of nuclear deterrence.  The period was really a measure of why the RCAF and Canadian Army were stationed at bases and casernes across Western Europe.  After all the sacrifices of the Second World War, we had to continue our air and ground presence and readiness to swiftly counter the Eastern Bloc nuclear and conventional threat.

Like those before us in the Sword (F-86 Sabre), Clunk (CF-100 Canuck) and real war fighter eras, Canadians strapped into CF-104 Starfighters daily and consistently demonstrated the highest levels of combat effectiveness, achieving top scores on Annual NATO Tactical Evaluations and winning NATO-wide weapons and reconnaissance competitions.  In the early 104 days, Canadian fighter pilots were well-trained to fly long-range, high speed, low level, visual or - more often - all-weather missions to deliver nuclear "buckets of sunshine" to selected targets well into Warsaw Pact territory.  A number of squadrons were also unsurpassed in their ability to fly reconnaissance missions.  The DNA for both skill sets were handed down to those who continued to fly the Zipper - as the 104 was sometimes called - in the conventional role after the transition to the conventional role in the early '70s.  As a consequence, we were well trained to deliver conventional weapons at 540 Knots Indicated Air Speed (KIAS) a few hundred feet above ground level (AGL) on selected targets with tolerances of plus or minus three seconds and plus or minus 100 feet either side of designated bomb impact point.  While we flew with the LN3 inertial navigation system in the early days, we really relied on watch-map-ground techniques to make our time-of-day deliveries.  And, we were good at it.

And so, it was serious business.  That said, there were many lighter moments and this is one "war story" worth telling from which lessons might still be learned.

Believe it or not, one of a handful of principles to which many fighter pilots subscribe is humility.  The willingness to be on "receive" rather than "transmit" is critical to understanding one's abilities and shortcomings in air-to-air combat or while racing along a few hundred feet AGL in poor visibility at 900 feet a second.  You'd better know exactly where you are and what you're doing.  You'd better be constantly in the self-analysis mode if your erred.  But sometimes, it was hard to be humble, especially when you were a young CF-104 pilot cut loose in Europe; especially when you were taught high speed, low-level navigation techniques over tough European terrain by the best in the business:  reconnaissance (recce) trained RCAF pilots like Bud Berntson, Dan Graham, Larry Kinch, Roy DeWolfe and Gord Dejong. 

Now many nasty things have been said about "Click click, you're dead" recce pilots and of course, I agree with all of them.  That said, these luminaries in the mysteries of high speed navigation for snapshot sake had to be exceptionally accurate in capturing their targets in their camera pod at just the right time and angle in any kind of weather, and on the first go.  The information on their filmstrips and in their analytical minds would be critical to a post-strike assessment in a real war.  These squadron Magellans were legendary, unbeatable and always on time with a quality product.

Flying low level across the Mohne Dam in his CF-104 Starfighter, author Jurkowski inspects the site made famous by 617 Squadron, The Dambusters Low level flying in Europe was a critical skill, especially for conventional ground attack pilots like the author. Photo David Jurkowski collection.

As a newcomer to 439 Tactical Fighter Squadron (the Sabre Tooth Tigers) in the Cold War January of 1973, I listened attentively to the brain trust of recce nav techniques on a squadron that had recently re-roled from the recce to conventional weapons delivery mission.  On the south "marguerite" - dispersal - in Baden- Soellingen West Germany, I learned to build my strip maps using best terrain masking and nav checkpoints in countries where all the villages, church steeples and autobahns looked the same.  Like my mentors, I learned to cut my maps as narrow as possible to force myself to fly accurate ground tracks and to minimize cockpit administrivia at 500 feet AGL at 540 KIAS over unforgiving terrain, checking six for commie bogeys and still drop qualifying bombs from 200 ft AGL.

I was becoming so confident finding my way around Europe at low altitude, I was able to cut my maps a whole two inches wide and roll them on pencils just like my teachers.  I would often test myself by cutting my map with no headings, just minute marks and still make it to my equivalent "EQ" targets within acceptable limits.  I even learned to fly a map cut down the track line itself with only one side to cross-check for landmarks.

Map preparation was an intensely personal craft.  Once these 1:250,000 / 1:50,000 sets were built, you never, never let them go astray.  One good reason was the Duty Ops Officer.  When taking our turns pulling that non-flying duty day, some of us simply had to be amused by way of compensation for not flying, I suppose.  Woe to the unsuspecting pilot who was foolish enough to leave his maps on the ops desk while he checked and donned parachute, helmet and spurs (Yes, spurs.  But that's another story*).  Reason?  Some of us held a secret but rapidly accessible cache of pre-cut autobahns, cities and lakes which we quickly glued on or near the flight path of the unguarded map.  We'd also look for opportunities to take a felt-tipped pen to change 3's to 8's and 1' to 4's or 7's on headings for added spice!  Many a cockpit had been awash in adrenalin and dismay as the owner of these vulnerable maps strained vainly through the ubiquitous haze for non-existent track checks.  Ah, the good old days before digitally displayed maps!

Now wise to the world, there was no question in my simple mind that I was well on my way to becoming a regular high-speed, modern day Jean Cabot of Central Europe renown.

Then, it happened.  During the late summer of 1973.  It was a single ship, low level, three EQ counter-clockwise sortie around Munich in pretty good weather.

Notwithstanding our nav skill prowess, it was always prudent to dial in the TACAN frequencies of suitable Brit, US and Luftwaffe air bases along the route in case of emergencies.  The bearings and distances of the non-precision Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) systems could always be useful for a swift recovery in this single engine fighter.  A reliable but occasionally fallible system.

Turning south from a westerly heading with the German Air Force (GAF) Base Fuerstenfeldbruek on my left, I could see the tree line on the banks of the north /south Leck River through the haze on my right.  All was "in ordnung" at 800 ft AGL and 450 KIAS ground speed.  But strangely, the "Fuersty" TACAN showed on the nose for a scant 10 nautical miles (NM).  It ought to have been off my left wing for about 15 NM!  I double and triple checked my ground references and quickly confirmed I was bang on track.  After the distance ran down to five, then quickly to zero NM, no airfield emerged out of the haze.  Must have been the occasional "40 degree lock-off" error.  Another navigational mystery solved.  A confident sigh of relief.

But, pre-occupied with not running down an air base which might have been on the nose, I had instinctively slowed and was now some 30 seconds late!  Unacceptable!  And tough to make up in just a few minutes before the next leg.  Too easy!  I'll just make up time by accelerating and cutting the next corner of my slick two-inch wide map over familiar territory.  Approaching the point where I had planned to turn east, then south, then west, I would instead, fly south off my map, turn west at the appropriate time and regain track and time.

 Now in life, there are reasons for everything.  Rules of Engagement.  Hard and soft decks in air-to-air combat training .  Standard Operating Procedures.  Squadron Flying Orders.  All there for good reason.  So too are circuitous turns to the east, south and then to the west:  Kaufbeuren!!  A GAF C-160 transport base!!

Happily making up time now at over 900 feet per second, I was jolted to see the Kaufbeuren control tower and runway at 90 degrees to my flight path on the nose at about 2 NM - a scant 12,000 feet and closing rapidly!  No time to turn short.  The best I could do was, well, just hope for the best!

As if I could tiptoe unnoticed around Kaufbeuren in a screaming Zipper and - good grief - a large bright yellow squadron tiger painted on my tail!!  I did the only thing I could:  quickly descended to below control tower catwalk, "stroked" the afterburner, pulled hard left at 7g and ripped eastbound between the active runway and taxiway.  I could see GAF C160s with their props turning moving about the airfield.  I swear I saw exclamation marks and "vas ist los?!!!" word balloons over their flight decks.

Burner cooking and now heading east in the weeds at near supersonic speed in a sea of acute awareness, I clearly heard the heavily accented tower controller calmly transmit on Guard frequency for the whole world to hear:  "Nize goink Tiger!  Skip Hit!!"

Normally reserved for successfully lobbing napalm into a 50' X 200' "skip pit" target on controlled weapons ranges, the expression seemed mildly droll on an active airfield.  Anyway, how could he have seen the tiger on my tail when all he could possibly see was the inside of my cockpit?!

My career was surely ended!  How could I have let this happen?  And just when I knew where I was!  And just when it would be tough to learn more!

Dave Jurkowski photographs Major Bill Fuoco, a fellow 439 Squadron Starfighter pilot as he taxies in after another low level flight in Germany. Photo: David Jurkowski

Back home an hour later, I waited nervously for the phone call which would signal the airspace violation, but more worrisome, the revelation to my colleagues.  Derision would follow.  My ego was already sore.  Fate was cruel but unfair!

The call never came, but did I learn something?  Yes indeed.  At least three things:  don't get ahead of your headlights in life; there's a reason for everything; and, there's still enough paper to go around for maps wider than two inches!

I was never uncertain of my position again.  Well, hardly ever.

Dave Jurkowski

* Boot spurs were worn by Starfighter pilots. These spurs, which were strapped to his boots, were wired to the ejection seat and automatically pulled the pilot's heels into the seat in the event of an ejection, thereby saving a possible amputation of the pilots legs.

Dave Jurkowski in the now-famous 439 Squadron colour bird which was painted for the squadron's participation in the NATO Tiger Meet. Photo: David Jurkowski Collection

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