Giebelstadt airfield is located southwest of the town of the same name in Bavaria, approximately 250 miles southwest of Berlin. It's history began in 1928 when the German army was searching for a suitable location for an air station in the region. Due to the very favorable climate and topographical location, a spot near the town of Giebelstadt was finally chosen. The airport was built in 1935 and was officially inaugurated on September 17th 1936, being one of the first airfields in use by the Luftwaffe.
At the beginning of World War II, aircraft from Giebelstadt flew support missions in conjunction with the German Blitzkrieg, flying many missions against various targets in France. Later, the base became a training facility for pilots, observers and radio operators, but from 1941 onwards, any mention of the airfield from maps was erased. The reason for this was that in 1944 Giebelstadt would become the test site for two new airplanes: the nozzle-driven Messerschmitt Me 262 and the rocket-driven Messerschmitt Me 163.
Despite the secrecy, the allies were well aware of the activities carried out there so the airfield suffered heavy bombing attacks between 1944 and 1945, with extensive damage to the installations. When the end of the war was close and even before the capitulation of the German troops, the airfield was occupied by the American 12th Armored Division. A few days later, after some repairing, the airfield was redesignated Advanced Landing Ground "Y-90 Giebelstadt" with combat units arriving from the 50th Fighter Group and the 417th Night Fighter Squadron, the later for night fighter defensive interceptor missions against any rogue Luftwaffe aircraft still in the skies.
After the war, Giebelstadt was initially placed on "Standby" status, but then in 1947 a new runway and hangars were constructed along with a large concrete parking apron, being redesignated late that year as Giebelstadt Air Base. The recently formed US Strategic Air Command assigned nine B-29 Superfortress bombers to the base to conduct training during temporary deployments to Europe. However, by January 1948, all SAC personnel returned to the United States and the facility was closed again.
The US Air Force would return in April 1950, when the 603rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, arrived at Giebelstadt AB as part of an Operational Readiness Test. In May they were placed on temporary status and finally in August 1950, Giebelstadt was made the home of the 603rd, with the main mission of Giebelstadt becoming an Air Defense Radar Station.
With the breakout of the Cold War, the usefulness of the airfield by the Air Force became limited, as it was too close to the East German border, with little or no time available to launch aircraft from the field before it coming under attack. The base, however, remained active as various transport units used it during the 1950s.
Was in this particular time on which Giebelstadt would be part of one of the most secret operations of espionage over the Soviet Union.
The GENETRIX program
Around July 1955, members of the 1st. Air Division Survey Team of the United States Air Force (USAF), visited the Giebelstadt airfield, to verify that the facilities were adequate for "Genetrix" a program developed by the Strategic Air Command and other agencies to obtain photographic reconnaissance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites using stratospheric balloons carrying high resolution cameras.
The platform -denominated Weapons System 119L or WS-119L- consisted basically of a polyethilene balloon, to which was attached through a special bar assembly a gondola containing an automatic photographic system, denominated DMQ-l, composed by a duplex camera which had two 6-inch lenses on opposite sides. The camera was capable of obtaining about 500 pictures, covering 50 miles on either side of the balloon path. On the bottom of the box a photo cell turned on and off the camera according to the illumination below. Additional items were a thermal box containing batteries and electronic gear, two ballast boxes and parachutes for descent and recovery.
After launched, the balloon would transit the target zone carried by eastward winds until exiting enemy territory where a signal would be transmited to terminate the flight. While the gondola would descent by parachute it would be catched in mid-air by a specially fitted C-119 plane, or if this failed, the package also could be snatched by that same plane from the water, or recovered later by boat.
In early stages of development of the project, it was considered that all balloons should be launched from Scotland, but aside the fact that surface weather there was expected to be unsuitable for launch activities a large part of the time, a further study of meteorological data indicated that more complete coverage could be obtained if sites were wide dispersed in western Europe.
Thus, taken account of the factors mentioned above and based on studies of trajectory and surface weather, the general areas selected for the location of launch detachments for the project were the aforementioned Scotland, Eastern Norway, West Germany, and Turkey. Then, under responsability of the Command in Chief of the United States Air Forces in Europe the specific sites were selected: Evanton, Scotland, Gardermoen, Norway, Adana, Turkey and two sites in West Germany Oberpfaffenhofen and Giebelstadt. A third german launch site located in Buckeburg was secured for the program in case of need, but finally was never used.
The unit assigned to Giebelstadt was denominated Detachment 5 and was composed by 7 officers, 119 airmen and 6 civilians. The deployment to the two sites in Germany along with all the material needed to perform more than 500 balloon launches took place between August and October 1955, with a preliminar date to start operations on December that year.
A month later than originally expected, on January 10, 1956 orders were cursed from the control center in High Wycombe, England, to start the balloon launches from all the sites at a maximum rate of ten by day. Several balloons were sent that day from Adana and one from Giebelstadt.
As occured in the rest of the sites, balloons from Giebelstadt were launched using a 2 ton 6x6 heavy truck with a superimposed structure -denominated the fisher launcher- from which the gondola was suspended and released. As the two German sites were very close to the "iron curtain" the balloons launched there were pre-programmed to automatic turn-on it's location beacon after 60 hours of flight, which was the estimated time it would took them to cross the soviet territory. Later, that time would be extended to 110 hours to prevent soviet forces to track the signals emmited by the balloons if activation occured too early. Also, the cameras turn on times were to be delayed long enough in each case to avoid the possibility of photographing friendly territory, and allow the identification of the launch site if the balloon was recovered by the soviets.
Below this lines can be seen a map showing an estimated pattern of dispersion of balloons launched from Giebelstadt.
The GENETRIX program used two types of balloons, the 66CT and 128TT. The first ones were meant to flight at lower altitudes and so they were more vulnerable and detectable by the enemy. Due to this fact the 66CT balloons were launched from the two German sites so as to penetrate the border during hours of darkness.
As a cover history for the balloon launches, Strategic Air Command used another program carried out over the United States in previous years named "Moby Dick" which receive wide coverage in the press. The idea was to link the launches for Genetrix as a continuation of that effort. Several balloon missions were performed in the previous months from bases in Japan and South Korea, which also received good publicity.
As part of this cover effort, on January 19, Giebelstadt received a group of German and U.S. newspapermen which were invited to observe one of the Genetrix balloon launches which was deemed as "...part of a worldwide Air Force program of research into all types of weather phenomena encountered at high altitudes...", curiously, when Maj. John L. Krebs in charge of the detachment was asked by one of the journalists if any balloon had ventured behind the Iron Curtain he said that "...all the balloons released here have been recovered..." adding that "...thus far none have come down in populated areas. All have landed in forestland and on open fields...". The pictures at left -which were taken by Jim Black- are part of the interview published by Tom Mulvehill in the January 20, 1956 edition of Star & Stripes an American military newspaper that focuses and reports on matters concerning the members of the United States Armed Forces.
As far as I know these pictures are among the very few images available from the Genetrix program. The entire series show all the phases of a launch, even showing in some details the DMQ-1 gondola (the seventh image from top).
Operations from Giebelstadt were carried out at good pace, until 23 January. That day the operations were suspended, due to a formal protest to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) by Czechoslovakian Civil Aviation Authority, claiming that the balloon program constituted a hazard to air navigation and as a consequence had grounded all night flights of Czech airlines. The same restriction applied to launches from Oberpfaffenhoffen.
The Commander in Chief of the United States Air Forces in Europe, through the German Air Traffic Controler (Bundesanstalt für Flugsicherung) notified Czechoslovakia that balloon operations from Germany would be suspeded for 36 hours pending Czech presentation by documented evidence that the balloons were in fact flying at altitudes where they constituted a hazard to air navigation.
As the evidence was never received from Czech authorities, launchings from the two German sites were resumed on 25 January, after a 36 hour "stand-down".
Operations in Giebelstadt continued during the rest of January, and the next month. Meanwhile in February 4th, the Soviets strongly protested about the operation. As a result President Eisenhower decided to stop the launches and instructed accordingly to the Air Force to halt the operations. Thus on the February 6, a last launch was performed at Giebelstadt, but the balloon gone stray and never entered the target zone.
Since February 6, the launch team at Giebelstadt stood on alert in case orders could arrive to resume operations, but instead, informally on 29 February and by message on 1 March 1956, USAF directed termination of the operational phase of the project and on 26 March 1956, by Headquarters USAF directive, lst Air Division and Strategic Air Command relinquished operational control of operational units to parent commanders, thus starting the return of each detachment and disposition of surplus material.
A brief review of the numbers from Giebelstadt follows:
- Total of balloon launches performed: 107
- Succesful balloon launches: 73
- Failed balloon launches: 34
- Balloons surviving transit and entering the recovery zone: 10
- Total number of gondolas recovered: 7
- Total feets of films exposed from Giebelstadt recovered gondolas: 4.583
- Total photo frames obtained from Giebelstadt recovered gondolas: 4.785
Giebelstadt after the Genetrix program
Despite the balloon effort to gather aerial imagery of the soviet bloc was short-lived, part of the history of Giebelstadt regarding strategic reconnaissance was still to be writen.
In October 1956, shortly after the Genetrix units were deactivated, Detachment "A", with four U-2 aircraft, arrived at Giebelstadt and by end of the year, they flew three times over Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Detachment was operational at the German base until 15 November 1957, when it was closed down, and U-2 operations were moved to Pakistan.
During the 1960s, interceptors of the 86th Air Division used the Giebelstadt frequently as a forward base from their home bases west of the Rhine, however, new budget reductions would led to Air Force to transfer in August 1968 the base and all of its facilities to United States Army control. In the following decades, many Army armored infantry and transport units were stationed at Giebelstadt, flying AH-1 Cobra and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and UH-60 Blackhawk and CH-47 Chinook transport helicopters.
With the new millenium, and with more budget cutbacks in the horizont, the last chapter of a long history of military use of Giebelstadt by US armed forces was started to be writen when the US Department of Defense announced in July 2005 plans for the return of eleven Army bases to Germany in fiscal year 2007. As a result, Giebelstadt Army Airfield was closed by the United States Army on 23 June 2006.
After returning to the orbit of the German government, nowadays the former Giebelstadt Airfield has become a commercial airport used by general aviation aircraft.
List of all GENETRIX balloons launched from Giebelstadt in 1956