USMLM USMLM Bill Burhans served as a tour officer with the USMLM Air Team from July 1971 to June 1975. He returned in 1979 to command Detachment 16, 7113th Special Activities Squadron (the Air Team), departing in early spring 1980 following a December 1979 Soviet-originated nasty incident. One of his first sorties in 1971 was for the Wittstock firing range, where he witnessed LABS training with simulated nuclear weapons. This proved to be an unforgettable experience...

In order to determine how Soviet air units would provide support in wartime to Group of Soviet Forces in Germany ground units, it was very important for the intelligence collectors assigned to the Air Team, the US Air Force element within the United States Military Liaison Mission operating in East Germany, to monitor the tactics 16th Air Army flying units employed. One of the best ways to accomplish this was to watch Soviet aircraft crews practice their assigned missions at the numerous bombing and gunnery ranges in the GDR.

Wittstock A prominent example of such ranges was located a few kilometers southeast of the city of Wittstock between the small towns of Gadow and Rossow. We had learned from aerial observations that the Soviets had essentially copied the layout of the US air base at Bitburg in West Germany. Thus, the Gadow- Rossow Range also was referred to as “Bitburg East” [Wittstock polygon or range for the Soviets].
As was the case for all major training areas and ranges, a large permanent restricted area (PRA) protected “Bitburg East.” There was a favorite place that Air Team reconnaissance tours liked to use to cover aerial activity at this important range. Fortunately, there were lots of woods in this particular area, which made coverage of this target feasible. The trick was to be able to reach the general area unobserved, enter the woods and find a suitable observation point (OP). The down side was that this was such a popular location to observe range activity that Stasi surveillance personnel were very familiar with such haunts and checked them regularly any time an allied foreign liaison mission reconnaissance tour was observed in the general area.

Map Map The first time I was involved in activity at Gadow-Rossow was during my on-the-job training (OJT). I was back-seating with Major Lynn Hansen and Technical Sergeant Nick Netter in the morning of October 15, 1971. I don’t know if Lynn had advanced knowledge of the activity, but we did a considerable amount of circuitous travel before ending up in the woods between the field trails via which we had approached the area and the PRA boundary. Here was the dilemma - just how wide was that pencil line on the PRA map? Since you could see a gap between the wood line demarcating where we had set up and the pencil line depicting the edge of the PRA, we considered ourselves to be outside the PRA. We at least could argue that point should something untoward happen. Perhaps not a strong arguing point, but it was at least something. . .
If my memory is anywhere near correct, we were in the vicinity of the high point marked “71” on the map to the left, due west of Katerbow. We weren’t in position very long before the activity began. FITTER B (Su-7B) with side number 77 came screeching overhead from behind us, approaching the range from the south. Based on aircraft type and the color of the side number, this aircraft was from the 20th Guards Fighter-Bomber Aviation Regiment based at Gross Dölln due east of Wittstock not far from the range.

Su-7 Un Su-7B du 20.GvIBAP sur le point d'effectuer un bombardement en ressource au-dessus du polygone de Wittstock le 15 octobre 1971. Il était armé d'une bombe de type IAB-500 simulant une arme nucléaire et il emportait également deux réservoirs supplémentaires. © USMLM.

A Su-7B of the 20.GvIBAP almost ready to start a LABS maneuver above the Wittstock firing range on 15 October 1971. It was carrying two external fuel tanks underwing and an IAB-500 bomb simulating a nuclear weapon was suspended under the fuselage. © USMLM.
This aircraft was very low, I would guess at an altitude of approximately 300 meters. We watched as the pilot put the aircraft into a vertical climb just before reaching the dummy targets on the range. The pilot released the simulated weapon, the aircraft continued to climb to an altitude of about 4000 meters, and then the pilot performed an Immelmann maneuver and exited the area in the same direction from which he had approached the target area. This turned out to be the first of several such passes over the range, eight or ten as I recall. After the first aircraft disappeared, we all prepared ourselves for subsequent activity. I was positioned at an angle of 90° to the target while looking to my right awaiting the next aircraft. My guess was correct - all subsequent FITTER B flew the same pattern from our right to our left and, like the first one we saw, performed an Over-the-Shoulder Low Altitude Bomb System (LABS) maneuver employed when aircraft delivered tactical nuclear weapons on a target.

Mushroom Lynn Hansen Each aircraft carried a center-mounted simulated nuclear weapon that itself mounted a red flare. The purpose of the flare was to facilitate tracking of the trajectory of the weapon by the Soviet range authorities. Naturally, this flare served the same purpose for us! It was clearly visible as the aircraft began its high-speed vertical climb and, when the weapon was released, it was very easy to follow as it continued up and up and up until, having lost its momentum, it looped over and begin its descent towards the target. At the altitude assigned for the airburst, we would notice a small puff of smoke and could hear the distant sound of a detonation. The motor drive on my Nikon-F camera came into play here. I was able to follow the aircraft all the way through this maneuver by keying in on the red flare. Once I became accustomed to the procedure the Soviet pilots were using, I knew how much time to wait before clicking off the next frame. I exposed between 30 and 34 frames of each 36-frame roll of Kodak Tri-X film for each pass, meaning that I had to change rolls after every aircraft delivery run. I am glad there was sufficient time between attacking aircraft to allow me to do this.

Map The entire exercise was impressive enough in and of itself, but the climax was something else again. It actually was very chilling! The last aircraft delivered a special simulator [most certainly an IAB-500 bomb]. When the simulated weapon finally had descended to perhaps 1000 meters above its intended target, an explosion occurred.
The result was the huge extremely realistic-looking mushroom cloud shown above and also visible on the "Wall of Honor" off the right shoulder of Major Hansen shown seated at his desk, on the top right picture. I must admit I had the shivers while looking at that cloud. I am sure Lynn and Nick had exactly the same reaction. We were about five miles from this event, but that distance would have made no difference at all had this been a real nuclear detonation. . . I do not think I will ever forget that sight. Believe me, it was a chastened trio that climbed into the Ford Fairlane 500 tour vehicle and departed the range area after activity ceased.

- Bitburg East > Here
- A simulated nuclear explosion can be watched briefly at 5'06" on this video about the Su-17
- Short video showing a Su-7 armed with a 8U49 tactical nuclear bomb (externally similar to the IAB-500 bomb) to download >Here

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