Bob Archer reports on the WTD-61 50th anniversary open day, held at Manching, Germany. Photography by the author and Michael Balter
Test establishments are universally manned by personnel who are the most experienced and professionally qualified. The German Air Force (Luftwaffe) is no exception, and therefore the opportunity to attend the 'Tag der offen' hosted by WTD-61 at Manching Air Base in Bavaria on 15 September, to commemorate fifty years of test duties, was guaranteed to present an unparalleled flying programme. It was also a rare opportunity to view at close quarters test aircraft and weapons systems that are normally kept shrouded from public view.
German military flight testing began in 1957 by Dornier at Oberpfaffenhofen, although this was ad-hoc with no military unit structure in place. Gradually this changed and Erprobungstelle 61 (ErpST-61) was formed on 1 October 1962, the operation relocating to a purpose-built complex at Manching in March 1966. ErpST-61 was replaced by WTD-61 on 3 October 1990 and continues its important tasks, vital to the effectiveness of the modern Bundeswehr.
The hangar display was most interesting, containing examples of representative test aircraft utilised for development and to support the numerous weapons programmes being produced by German industry. Several Panavia Tornados, a McDonnell Douglas F-4F Phantom, an EADS Eurofighter, a Bell UH-1D Huey, as well as a civilian Mystere 20 and an EC135 were exhibited, alongside numerous weapons currently being evaluated. The elderly F-4F is in the twilight of its operational career, but still serves WTD-61 as a stable platform for various programmes. Displayed alongside F-4F 38+40 (on loan from JG71) was the new Mess-System Sensor-Pod (MSSP), which will become operational in due course. Ongoing Tornado development of the aircraft itself, and its weapons systems, is currently the cornerstone of Luftwaffe defence. The handful of aircraft are actively engaged in numerous programmes to ensure the Tornado remains an effective weapons delivery platform. Operational reconnaissance missions are being flown over Afghanistan, and WTD-61 has a special role to play in the development of new tactics tailored for the task. Tornado 98+60 was on view fitted with a new digital reconnaissance pod, which will be fielded to AkG-52 when trials are complete. While Eurofighter is planned to replace many Tornado units in Germany, three wings will retain the latter type for the foreseeable future, notably JbG32 at Lechfeld (specialising in the suppression of enemy air defences), JbG33 at Buchel (conducting general ground attack), and AkG52 at Schleswig-Jagel (performing photo reconnaissance). As such, the importance of Tornado cannot be underestimated, and its weapons systems will remain part of WTD-61's remit for several more years.
Eurofighter is the latest fighter in German service, and is fully operational with JG72 at Laage, while the second unit, JG74 at Neuburg-Donau, is part way through conversion from the F-4F. Next will be JbG31 at Norvenich. The newest system is the subject of much development at Manching, both in tactical operations, and in the variety of weapons carried. The German aircraft have the primary role of air defence, but with a secondary ground attach capability. One Eurofighter was on display in the hangar, this being DA02 98+30 fitted with Sidewinder missiles beneath the wings, epitomising its primary duty. Unlike all the other fighter types, no additional weapons were placed on the ground beneath the Eurofighter. Tucked away in a corner was a Dornier-Bell UH-1D 98+98 fitted with an advanced laser radar system. The contraption was fitted to a metal gantry mounted beneath the nose. Several civilian test beds were also on display in the hangar including a DLR Mystere 20 and an EC135 helicopter with a long nose probe.
Outside the hangar was a small static composed of technical airframes and museum exhibits that normally reside in the large EADS complex, including Sukhoi Su-22M-4 98+17; F-104G 98+04, still resplendent in its 1991 blue and white retirement scheme; G-91R 31+42; and Alpha Jet 40+01. Alongside was WTD-61 F-4F 38+13, fresh from major overhaul and repaint. Another small static nearby contained a variety of helicopters.
Despite being a Luftwaffe unit, WTD-61 conducts aviation related test programmes for the all three branches of the Bundeswehr. WTD-61 is involved in evaluation of existing HEER (Army) helicopters, such as the Bo105, UH-1D and CH-53G, which will remain in the forefront of operations in the foreseeable future. Two new helicopters are currently in production at nearby Donauworth with NHIndustries and Eurocopter respectively, and are being evaluated by WTD-61 ahead of operational employment. The NH90 will be the multi-task transport for HEER, and will replace the CH-53G and UH-1D, while the Eurocopter Tiger gunship will add a totally new degree of firepower to that presently available from the diminutive Bo105. Both types arrived from Donauworth to participate.
As would be expected from such a centre of excellence, the flying programme was unique. Almost all of the exhibits were drawn from WTD-61 or the EADS facility next door, which is all the more remarkable considering so few aircraft managed to entertain the huge audience for more than four hours. The programme began with several Heritage Flight aircraft consisting of Second World War types, which have been lovingly restored to flying condition. The first to display was the Messerschmitt Me163 'Komet' replica, nicknamed 'Powered Egg'. The diminutive red rocket-powered glider fighter was towed to altitude by a Dornier Do27 - upon release, the Komet zigzagged its way to earth before executing a perfect landing. This was followed by a Messerschmitt Me108 'Taifun' spotter plane, and an authentically restored former Spanish Air Force AT-6D Harvard. The T-6 was finished in a bright yellow scheme and the markings of FFS-A, which was based at Landsberg from 1956. The finale was a spirited performance by a Daimler powered Me109G - this classic emulated the aerial routine of the UK's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with the Me109 even sounding similar to a Merlin powered Spitfire! It was most enjoyable to see these exhibits, which normally grace museums, performing routines similar to those they would have carried out more than sixty years ago. Sadly the Fw190 and Me262 suffered technical difficulties, rendering them to the static park.
The second part of the display featured habschrauber (helicopter) demonstrations, beginning with an ambulance and a police Bo105. Next came the NH90, which demonstrated its agility, and clearly showed why the type has achieved a very healthy order book exceeding 490 to date. The helicopter then joined the static, as Sikorsky CH-53G 84+02 began its display. The CH-53 is one of two US built versions supplied in 1969, and was inscribed 'WTD-61' and '1957-2007' in orange. This was followed by a Bo105 that gave an amazing performance including 360 degree loops, and high speed, high angle turns. However, the helicopter finale was reserved for the Eurocopter Tiger gunship - the new helo was every bit as nimble as the Bo105, and flew a breathtaking display, the most impressive being when the Tiger stopped in mid air, performing an unbelievably athletic 360 degree loop before resuming its stationary position.
The third and final part of the programme was allocated to the modern, fixed-wing element and was opened by a WTD-61 C-160D Transall, which has been conducting flare testing. Wisely the crew did not fire its flare package, as it would have likely burned down half of the forest inside Manching airfield! A Tornado from JbG31, fitted with a buddy-buddy refuelling system, demonstrated the role by passing fuel to another Tornado, before the two fighters gave way to the undisputed highlight of the day; the 'Erprobungorange' F-4F 37+16 and Tornado 45+03 of WTD-61, which had been repainted in a special orange colour scheme to commemorate half a century of military aviation testing, both flying a solo routine before joining for some low-level flypasts. The F-4F had a large spook applied to the underside, with 'Mr F-4' juggling five balls inscribed either '50' or 'WTD-61'. The Tornado was similarly adorned, with a 'WTD-61 Team Tornado' emblem beneath the fuselage. Both aircraft were inscribed '50 Jahre Flugerprobung' (50 years of flight testing), as well as various complicated mathematical equations. At the close of their routine the special aircraft were positioned in front of the crowd for photography. Their popularity was such that they almost overshadowed the display by a Eurofighter, which brought the day's flying activities to a close.
The event was staged in ideal flying conditions, with broken cloud and light winds. The organisers are to be congratulated for arranging such an enjoyable event. Furthermore, the maintenance technicians even arranged for the two special scheme aircraft to be moved to an area with a backdrop of tress for some stunning photography at the close of the day.