Above & Beyond: The Bridge that Did Not Fall

Memorable flights and other adventures

A bridge overpass in the bucolic East German countryside would have been the primary target for a flight of four Fairchild anti-tank A-10s on a 1987 cold war mission. The bridge still stands. Darrel Whitcomb

I remember my assigned cold war mission very clearly. In July 1987, I was directed to lead a flight of four Fairchild A-10s to strike a bridge-overpass in the Thuringer Wald, a mountain range about 100 miles northeast of Frankfurt in what was then East Germany. The brick and concrete structure supported a train line that was expected to be used by units of the Soviet 8th Guards Army if Warsaw Pact forces invaded Europe. The train track passed over a key road; by destroying the structure, we could cut that track, and the resulting rubble would block the road below.

My plan was simple: Over the target, we would attack out of a circle, with each aircraft striking from a different direction, creating the most problems for those defending it.

My flight then went before a certification board. Our squadron commander said he was satisfied with our preparations. The senior NATO officer turned to an intelligence officer, who noted that we would likely destroy the target, but there was a good chance that two of our A-10s would be shot down. Enemy units in the area would defend it well.

We four pilots eyed one another uncomfortably. We all knew that once we were that deep in enemy territory, there would be no chance of rescue. If downed, our fate would be capture or death.

I had started my flying career as an Air Force pilot, graduating from flight training during the war in Southeast Asia. I subsequently served in the conflict as an OV-10 Bronco and O-1 Bird Dog forward air controller, then returned home to duty as a jet instructor. With the force reductions in the mid-1970s, I left active duty for an airline career, but continued flying with the Air Force Reserve. By the 1980s, I was flying A-10s, the anti-tank fighter-bombers, at a base just south of Kansas City, Missouri. I loved it. And at the height of the cold war, we had a real mission: Each summer, we deployed to Air Force bases in West Germany and served with active-duty units.

In 1987, we were at Sembach Airbase, southwest of Frankfurt, replacing a unit so it could return to England for a break from frontline duty. We assumed responsibility for alert missions; in the event of war, we had to be ready to launch aircraft on short notice to attack pre-selected targets in East Germany.

On that July day, when we learned that half of us might be shot down, we shuffled out of the briefing room and resumed our training flights. Preparing to return to our base in Missouri, we relinquished our assigned missions to the unit we had stood in for and headed home.

A few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. With it went the Warsaw Pact and the threat that Western Europe might be invaded. Some deep thinkers said it was the resolve of NATO to defend itself that had prevented World War III.

In 1992, I was in Frankfurt on an airline trip and had a free day. On a stroll through Mainz, I went into a bookstore and picked up a map of Germany. Like all maps, it had been modified to remove the old border between West and East Germany. But I knew the terrain well, and, recognizing the train line and conjoining highway, I followed them to their junction at the bridge—my Thuringer Wald target. I found my old base at Sembach and retraced the path we would have flown from the base to the bridge.

I had to “fly” that mission.

I rented a car, and marked our route of flight on the map, using the circles, triangles, and squares with which we laid out a military mission. It was a short drive to my old base, which had been deactivated. I stared at the hardened aircraft shelters, large domed concrete structures. They could be destroyed only by a direct hit with a powerful bomb.

I drove northeast, passing south of Frankfurt, and stopped along what had been the border between the two Germanys. Walking along the remnants of the wall, I watched a team removing land mines. I also climbed into one of the guard towers that had been maintained by the East Germans and thought about what that tower represented.

I could feel myself tense up. Certainly there was no reason to do so; everyone I encountered was friendly and helpful. But I still felt I was in enemy territory. What would we have seen from 500 feet or lower, traveling at 350 mph? Part of the flight would have been across a wide valley. I looked up at the ridges on each side and envisioned the anti-aircraft guns and missile sites the enemy would have set up there.

I drove into the hills that surrounded the target. Approaching a ridge, I remembered this would have been the point at which I would have split my flight for the attack. Then I rounded a turn, and there was the bridge—old, tired, and still in use.

I stopped the car and got out. As two stout horses pulling a hay wagon passed by, the farmer waved and shouted a greeting in German, which I returned in English. He gave me a surprised look and continued on. Hearing a train approaching, I walked up a path to the bridge. As the train passed, the ground rumbled slightly.

I laid out my map. There was higher terrain to the east, but the ridge fell off to the north. I could envision how we would have attacked from different directions. I could trace how we would have maneuvered our aircraft and where the bombs would have fallen. I could see them hit the bridge, and the bridge falling on the road below.

Over the years, I have visited many battlefields. This was a battlefield of a different sort: one from a war that had not been fought. Had World War III erupted, what would this relatively minor action have meant? It would have been, at best, a one-line entry in an operational report, noting that because a bridge had been dropped, the advance of the Soviet 8th Guards Army in one sector had been slightly delayed. Then again, most all wars are accumulations of countless minor actions.

I tried to recall the other three pilots in my flight, then realized I had strayed into a gray area. As a historian, I could deal with the bridge. But by recalling those pilots, I was personalizing the mission. Now when I looked up and saw the circling A-10s, there were men in them, with names and faces and families.

I could see the enemy anti-aircraft guns and missile sites on the high ground. I could see crews firing long bursts of deadly rounds. I could hear the whooosh of the missiles as they streaked skyward with their warheads, seeking our maneuvering aircraft.

We would have made desperate warning calls to one another. The airplanes would have shuddered as the shells and missiles found their marks. In terms of a world war, this bridge was a minor matter. But to us, the men assigned to destroy it, the mission could have been the final event of our lives.

Back home a week later, I went down to the basement and pulled out my box of old military stuff. I opened up the unit history and looked at a photograph of the four of us in my flight. Then I opened my logbook and found the entries for the summer of 1987. I remembered the gunnery flights to the ranges at Grafenwehr, Hohenfels, and Wildflecken, and the navigational flights through Bavaria. But there was no logged mission to the bridge.

And that was the point. The bridge itself would not have been worth any of our lives. But the resolve that the mission represented—that I saw in our young faces in our unit history photos—was where the value lay. I have to agree with those deep thinkers: In being prepared to fly that mission, we prevented it from having to be carried out. And that resolve, magnified by the efforts of so many throughout the NATO alliance, prevented the conflagration that would have been World War III.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.