Strike Eagles take to the sky to honor heritage
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 17, 2012 2:20 PM
Allied forces had earned air superiority.
The Luftwaffe was grounded.
But the 8th Air Force wasn't finished. It was time to deal a decisive blow to the Germans.
So on April 16, 1945, more than 2,000 aircraft took to the skies over Europe.
Dr. Roy Heidicker throws his arms into the air as an F-15E taxis by.
The pilot and weapon systems officer in the cockpit return the gesture.
Both the airmen and the 4th Fighter Wing historian understand the significance of the mission that is about to unfold -- that the launch of 70 Strike Eagles would likely never happen again.
"Wow," Heidicker said, as another jet rolled by. "Unbelievable."
An hour earlier, an Air Force officer talked about just why he committed the airmen under his command to an undertaking he characterized as "enormous."
"We are honoring our history," 4th Commander Col. Patrick Doherty said. "Way back to 1945."
But the historic launch was not just an opportunity to pay homage to the members of the 4th Fighter Group who destroyed more than 100 German aircraft 67 years ago.
It was also a chance to "show the world" just what the nation's current generation of airmen are capable of.
"The 4th Fighter Wing is the crown jewel of the Air Force, and when you can launch 70 jets and destroy nearly 1,200 targets, that is something significant," Doherty said. "It's an enormous effort ... and these maintainers are the best in the world. They have put their blood, sweat and tears into these aircraft each and every day and night to make something like this possible.
"And all of our airmen, they are making history with their missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa. It doesn't matter where we're at. The sacrifices that they and their families make each day ... makes the team stronger for the future."
Heidicker smiles before he talks about the damage the 4th Fighter Group inflicted on the German fleet nearly seven decades ago.
"We had achieved air supremacy over Europe. We wanted to destroy whatever was left of the Luftwaffe, but they weren't coming up anymore, so we had to find them and get them in their airfields," he said. "But what people don't understand is that during World War II, it was much more difficult to destroy a plane on a German airfield than to shoot it out of the sky, because the airfields were surrounded by flak towers. Our best pilots who were shot down during World War II were shot down while they were strafing. It was dangerous."
The 4th lost eight aircraft that day.
But in the end, the victory was theirs.
"Our group was particularly fortunate, because we found several airfields full of German planes," he said, before talking about the 334th Fighter Squadron's raid on Gablingen. "For 40 continuous minutes, they just strafed the living hell out of it. By the end of the day, we had destroyed 105 planes."
As the last few jets took flight, those that took off before them were already dropping ordnance on targets tucked away in bombing ranges across North Carolina.
The historian in Heidicker still couldn't believe what he was witnessing.
"Nothing comes close. This is amazing," he said. "It's one of those moments in time when I wonder what I did to deserve being here to see it."
He looks over at his wife, Judine, and places a hand on her shoulder, as she waves to another Strike Eagle as it taxis by.
"Wow," Heidicker said. "We'll remember this for the rest of our lives."