Rhein-Main Air Base (located at ) was a U.S. Air Force / NATO military airbase near the city of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It occupied the south side of Frankfurt International Airport. Its airport codes are discontinued.
Established in 1945, Rhein-Main Air Base was the primary airlift and passenger hub for U.S. forces in Europe. It was billed as the "Gateway to Europe". It closed December 30, 2005.
During its operational lifetime, the base's host airlift wing operated C-130 Hercules and C-9 Nightingale aircraft, as well as supporting a large number of transient C-5 Galaxy, C-141 Starlifter, C-17 Globemaster III, KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender flight operations each day.
In 1909 Count von Zeppelin used Rhein-Main as a landing site for his dirigible Z-II. The facility was planned by Germany to be one of the most important European air terminals,
The base opened as a German commercial airport in 1936, with the northern part of base used as a field for airplanes and the extreme southern part near Zeppelinheim serving as a base for rigid airships. That section of Rhein-Main later became the port for the Graf Zeppelin, its sister ship LZ-130, and, until 6 May 1937, for the ill-fated Hindenburg.
The airships were dismantled and their huge hangars demolished on 6 May 1940 in conversion of the base to military use. Luftwaffe engineers subsequently extended the single runway and erected hangars and other facilities for German military aircraft. During World War II the Luftwaffe used the field sporadically as a fighter base and as an experimental station for jet aircraft.
After the U.S. 7th Army moved through the Frankfurt area, the '''826th Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB)''', a unit of the IX Engineer Command, arrived at Frankfurt/Rhein-Main Airfield 26 April 1945 It was classified as Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) Y-73. On 11 May 1945, the engineers began the task of clearing rubble and reconstructing major buildings. The Army engineers also built new runways and extended and widened the existing runway, constructed aprons and hardstands as well as taxiways leading to the terminal.
Initially Frankfurt/Rhein-Main Airfield was used by the Ninth Air Force as a tactical fighter base. Tactical air groups stationed at the airfield were:
- 362d Fighter Group (8 April 1945 - 30 April 1945)
377th Fighter Group (14 April 1945 - 2 May 1945)
- 378th Fighter Group (14 April 1945 - 2 May 1945)
- 379th Fighter Group (8 April 1945 - 30 April 1945)
- 425th Night Fighter Squadron (12 April 1945 - 2 May 1945)
The initial USAAF transport unit at Rhein-Main was the 466th Air Service Group, activated on 20 November 1945. The 466th operated the aerial port, with a mixture of C-47 Skytrain, C-46 Commando, and C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft using the base for transport operations. The Rhein-Main transport passenger and cargo terminal was completed in 1946, and air traffic into Rhein-Main increased after the closure of the military passenger terminal at Orly Air Base France in March 1947, when the USAFE Eastern Air Transport Service opened its hub at Rhein-Main.
The 61st Troop Carrier Group was reassigned to Rhein-Main on 30 September 1946 from nearby Eschborn Air Base and assumed control of the transport mission, carrying out routine transport operations from the base using C-47s and C-54s. Troop Carrier Squadrons of the 61st TCG were the 14th, 15th, and 53d.
However, the ongoing dispute over Berlin strained relations between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies (United States, United Kingdom, France). On 24 June 1948, the Soviet Union blocked access to the three Western-held sectors of Berlin, which lay deep within the Soviet-controlled zone of Germany, by cutting off all rail and road routes going through Soviet-controlled territory in Germany.
At Rhein-Main Air Base, Military and civilian supplies from Glessen Quartermaster Depot arrive in trucks of the 67th Transportation Company for transfer to waiting aircraft during the Berlin Airlift.
The commander of the American occupation zone in Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, USA, gave the order on 25 June to launch a massive airlift using both civil and military aircraft. Rhein-Main Air Base became the main American terminal in Western Germany for the airlift. The aircraft of the 61st TCG participated using C-54 Skymasters to ferry coal, flour, and other cargo into West Berlin. Additional Troop Carrier Squadrons were assigned to the 61st group, these being the 20th, 48th, and 54th.
On 19 November 1948, the 513th Troop Carrier Group (Special) was activated at Rhein-Main Air Base to assist in the airlift, also using C-54s. Squadrons of the 513th were the 313th, 330th, 331st, 332d, and 333d.
The Soviet Union lifted its blockade at 00:01, on 12 May 1949. However, the airlift did not end until 30 September, as the Western nations wanted to build up sufficient amounts of supplies in West Berlin in case the Soviets blockaded it again.
Although originally envisioned as a bomber base by USAFE, as a result of the Berlin Airlift, Rhein-Main became a principal European air transport terminal. With the end of the blockade, the 513th TCG was inactivated on 16 October 1949. The 61st TCG returned to routine transport operations until the outbreak of the Korean War for duty with Military Air Transport Service (MATS). The 61st was reassigned to McChord Air Force Base, Washington on 21 July 1950.
The 61st was replaced by the 60th Troop Carrier Wing, which transferred from Wiesbaden Air Base, West Germany on 2 June 1950. The 60th was equipped with the heavier C-82 Packet cargo aircraft. In 1953, the C-119 Flying Boxcar arrived, bringing an increased cargo capability to the wing. The 60th TCW consisted of the following squadrons:
In 1955, with the opening of USAFE bases in France, most heavy transport flights were shifted there and Rhein-Main became a passenger and tactical cargo hub. The 60th Troop Carrier Wing relocated to Dreux-Louvillier Air Base, France on 15 October 1955. The 1614th Support Squadron of the 1602nd Air Transport Wing (MATS) headquartered at Chatereaux, France provided aircraft maintenance, passenger services, air cargo handling, hotel operations and airlift operational support during the 1950s and 1960s on behalf of the Military Air Transport Service. Rhein-Main was placed under the 7310th Air Base Wing, and for over a decade provided ground service as well as cargo and passenger loading and unloading for USAFE and MATS transports.
USAFE turned over the northern part of the base to the German government for use as Flughafen Frankfurt am Main, the chief commercial airport for the greater Frankfurt area, in April 1959, with the remainder of the base remaining in the hands of USAFE as the principal aerial port for U.S. Forces in Germany.
435th Tactical Airlift Wing
C-5As flown from Rhein-Main AB being offloaded in the Middle East during Operation Desert Shield.
The 1966 closure of USAFE bases in France increased cargo traffic at Rhein-Main extensively. On 1 July 1969, MATS transferred the 435th Tactical Airlift Wing from RAF High Wycombe, England, to Rhein-Main as host unit and upgraded its facilities. Squadrons assigned to Rhein-Main along with the 435th TAW were:
U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs
and C-141 Starlifters
are parked on the ramp at Rhein-Main Air Base, Germany, on 26 December 1995. The aircraft are being used to deploy troops and equipment for the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina and neighboring countries in support of Operation Joint Endeavor.
The 435th TAW operated the Rhein-Main air terminal and providing aircraft maintenance for transitory C-17 Globemaster III, C-141 Starlifter and C-5 Galaxy aircraft supporting aerial ports in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
The 37th TAS took part in airlift operations during Operations Desert Shield/Storm in Southwest Asia (the Middle East), from 14 August 1990 29 March 1991. It also air-dropped humanitarian supplies in Operation Provide Comfort for the relief of fleeing Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq in April May 1991. The 37th AS conducted airlift and airdrop missions to Bosnia and Herzegovina for Operation Provide Promise, starting July 1992.
The 55th AAS flew aeromedical missions throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The 58th TAS flew many aircraft types in its cargo and VIP transport mission: Lockheed VC-140 Jet Star, Boeing VC-135 Sratoliner, North American Aviation CT-39 Sabreliner, Beech C-12, Gates Learjet C-21, C-20 Gulfstream III, and Boeing T-43. It was subsequently redesignated the 58th Airlift Squadron on 1 June 1992, and inactivated on 1 October 1993.
On 1 July 1975, the USAF and Military Airlift Command entered into an agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany that only transport aircraft be stationed at Rhein-Main Air Base.
Events of note at Rhein-Main Air Base:
- On August 8, 1985, The Red Army Faction terrorist group sneaked a car laden with explosives onto the base and parked it behind the headquarters building. At approximately 7:15 AM the car exploded, killing Airman First Class Frank Scarton of Michigan and Becky Jo Bristol of San Antonio, Texas, and wounding 20 others.
- In 1990, Rhein-Main Air Base was a major staging base for supplies and equipment heading to the Gulf War.
Post-Cold War use
In an ironic twist to the Berlin Airlift, the US and NATO staged Operation Provide Hope, a symbolic yet substantial airlift in February 1992 from Rhein-Main AB. For nearly two weeks, US Air Force C-5A s and C-141 s delivered several hundred tons of emergency food, medicines, and medical supplies to all twelve new independent states of the former Soviet Union, not only to each capital city but also to several outlying cities, especially across Russia. Small teams of US personnel from various government agencies (On-Site Inspection Agency, USAID, and USDA) had been placed in each destination shortly before the deliveries, to coordinate with local officials and to monitor to the best extent possible that the deliveries reached the intended recipients (i.e., orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens, and needy families). A closing ceremony to the airlift phase (a much larger ground phase of Operation Provide Hope began in the spring) was held in late February at Rhein-Main AB, using a Russian AN-124 cargo aircraft to transport the last shipment of air-delivered supplies.
On 1 April 1992 the 435th TAW was realigned from Military Airlift Command (MAC) to United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and redesignated as the 435th Airlift Wing (435 AW). The 37th Tactical Airlift Squadron (37 TAS) was concurrently redesignated as the 37th Airlift Squadron (37 AS) on the same date. At its peak, Rhein-Main AB had a population of 10,000. However by 1993, USAF officials announced the intent to downsize the base by half.
On 1 July 1993, the 55th Aeromedical Airlift Squadron moved to Ramstein Air Base with its C-9A Nightingale aircraft. The 37th Airlift Squadron was subsequently reassigned to Ramstein on 1 October 1994. With these moves completed and most heavy Air Mobility Command (AMC) airlifters moving transcontinenal cargo and passenger traffic to Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Base, the stage was set for a complete closue in 2005.
On 1 April 1995, the 435 AW was inactivated with Col Donald A. Philpitt, USAF as its last commander. The 435 AW was replaced by the 469th Air Base Group (469 ABG) under USAFE and the 726th Air Mobility Squadron (726 AMS) under AMC. The 469 ABG inactivated on 10 October 2005, with the 726th Air Mobility Squadron being the last USAF unit at Rhein-Main Air Base.
From September 2001 until 2005, Rhein-Main continued to provide support for transient C-130, C-141, C-17, C-5, KC-135, KC-10 and AMC-chartered civilian airliners supporting both US military activities throughout Europe, as well as a waypoint for air mobility operations throughout Southwest Asia in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
On 30 December 2005, the 726 AMS transferred to Spangdahlem Air Base and the base was turned over to the German Government.
Although the major mission of Rhein-Main Air Base was strategic and tactical airlift, the base also operated a substantial special operations mission under the cognizance of the former Tactical Air Command (TAC), United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), the 23d Air Force (23 AF) of the former Military Airlift Command (MAC) and finally the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
7406th Operations Squadron
The 7406th Operations Squadron was activated at Rhein-Main on 10 May 1955 and received its first aircraft (RB-50s) in March 1956. The RB-50s were replaced with specially configured C-130A-II reconnaissance aircraft in 1958.
Lockheed C-130A-LM Hercules, AF Serial No. 54-1637 of the 7406th Operations Squadron. This aircraft was later converted to GC-130A. It is now at Goodfellow AFB as ground trainer.
The mission of the 7406th was airborne reconnaissance. The 7406th owned and maintained the aircraft and provided the flight crews. A separate USAF Security Service squadron provided the recon crew that manned the intelligence collection positions on the aircraft.
One of these C-130s (56-0528) was shot down with the loss of a crew of seventeen over Yerevan, Soviet Armenia on 2 September 1958, becoming the first C-130 lost to hostile fire. Four Soviet MiG-17 pilots took turns firing on the unarmed C-130 when the American aircraft inadvertently penetrated Soviet airspace while on a recon mission along the Turkish-Armenian border.
On 2 September 1997 the National Security Agency dedicated at National Vigilance Park, Fort Meade, Maryland an Aerial Reconnaissance Memorial consisting of a refurbished C-130A tail number 57-0453 that has been restored to look identical to 56-0528 when it was shot down. The Aerial Recon Memorial honors all SILENT WARRIORS (all military airborne recon crews) who paid the ultimate price while defending their country.
The 7406th continued flying recon missions from Rhein-Main in the C-130B models until 30 June 1973 when the squadron's sister Security Service flying squadron moved to Hellenikon AB, near Athens, Greece. Operational missions were flown until 13 June 1974 from Greece when the unit was disbanded. The 7206th nomenclature continued embodied in the 7206th ABG which was a support group in Athens until 1993. Surveillance missions continued at Hellenikon under the auspices of the 6916th ESS
7th Special Operations Squadron
With the relocation of the 7406th to Greece, the 7th Special Operations Squadron was moved from Ramstein to Rhein-Main as one of the units shuffled as part of operation Creek Action. The 7406th's Hercules had been used for covert COMINT missions along the Eastern Bloc borders. The 7th SOS's MC-130Es, code-named Combat Talon, were no less mysterious and were also striking to look at with their matt black camouflage scheme and two large hooks on the nose.
MC-130E of the 7th Special Operations Squadron
It is these hooks that provided the clue to the covert task of these aircraft because they were the most visible element of the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system invented at the beginning of the 1960s and originally intended for fast and safe recovery of downed pilots from the ground or the sea as well as for the recovery of reconnaissance satellite capsules parachuting to earth.
The recovery system was not generally known about until around 1965 when several C-130s went into action in the Vietnam War. Being also equipped with terrain following radar and a vast amount of ECM equipment, these special EC-130Es were ideally suited for dropping infiltrators and agents behind enemy lines and picking them up again.
This, then, was the type of aircraft used in Europe by the 7th SOS as MC-130E Combat Talons. Although even today very little is known about this special unit. According to a Fact Sheet issued by the 1st SOW, the MC-130Es can be used for infiltration operations in which commando and sabotage units are dropped in enemy territory and for difficult air drops. These drops were often from an extremely low altitude - drops from below fifteen meters were not exceptional.
The 7th SOS's MC-130Es were being spotted in every corner of Europe. One of the most bizarre sightings dates from January 1976 when a traveller from West Berlin saw a low-flying C-130 over the Transitstrasse, the transit route, near Magdeburg in the German Democratic Republic (DDR). Flying at an estimated fifty meters over the motorway, the Hercules disappeared northwards at great speed. It was certainly an MC-130E from the 7th SOS but its unexplained sighting in the DDR makes one believe it was on a clandestine mission.
The 7th SOS was reassigned to the 39th Aerospace Rescue & Recovery Wing, on 1 February 1987 and to the 352d Special Operations Group, on 1 December 1992 relocating in the process to RAF Alconbury, England.
On 23 December 1999, the U.S. and German governments agreed to close the facility. The last military passenger and cargo flights took place in late September 2005 and the base's formal closure ceremony took place on 10 October 2005, although the final handover to the German government did not occur until 30 December 2005.
Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Bases took over all of Rhein-Main's airlift functions. The Frankfurt Airport Authority has proceeded with plans to level nearly the entire base to build a third passenger terminal and other airport facilities.
As of January 2011 the only remaining buildings are:
- Bldg: 692 - The old base hotel near the front gate (now owned by the Steigenberger Hotel Group and called the Esprix)
- Bldg: 140 - Former Enlisted Dorms, now office buildings
- Bldg: 259 - Sewage Treatment Plant. Has since been Upgraded and greatly expanded
- Bldg: 549 - Hangar, now used by Lufthansa Technik
(Gateway Gardens) As of June 2012 only 3 buildings remain: Building 602, 1 straight (Unknown), and the back gate guard house. All others were demolished to make room for a new office park and the new kitchen/depot for the LSG SkyChefs catering company, which commenced active service at the end of May 2008.
- Endicott, Judy G., USAF Active Flying, Space, and Missile Squadrons as of 1 October 1995. Office of Air Force History
- Fletcher, Harry R., Air Force Bases Volume II, Active Air Force Bases outside the United States of America on 17 September 1982, Office of Air Force History, 1989
- Maurer Maurer, Air Force Combat Units Of World War II, Office of Air Force History, 1983
- Ravenstein, Charles A., Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947-1977, Office of Air Force History, 1984
- Rogers, Brian, United States Air Force Unit Designations Since 1978, 2005
- Tart, Larry and Keefe, Robert. The Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights. NY: Ballantine Books, 2001. 656 p.
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