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NEWS | July 27, 2021

Observing the Legacy of the SMS Ostfriesland and Billy Mitchell’s vision

By SSgt Gabriel Macdonald 633rd ABW Public Affairs

A formation of F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons from the 94th Fighter Squadron and 71st Fighter Training Squadron took off from Joint Base Langley-Eustis towards the ocean on July 21, 2021. The mission target was not in the air or on land but resting at the bottom of the sea.

Just 71 miles from the shores of JBLE rests the sunken SMS Ostfriesland, a battleship surrendered by Germany to the Allied Powers after the peace brokerage of World War I.

The aerial formation was part of a large force exercise that saw participation from several units within the 1st Fighter Wing, and also included F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th Fighter Wing and coordination with the 2nd Bomb Wing. The objective was to conduct realistic large force training and drop bombs directly on the resting place of the Ostfriesland, commemorating its sinking a century ago by U.S. Army General and Air Force Pioneer, Billy Mitchell.

“Billy Mitchell wanted to prove that the future of warfare is airpower,” said Joshua Lashley, 1st Fighter Wing historian. “That’s what he did on the 21st of July, 1921, when they took off from this field and sank the Ostfriesland using airplanes and bombs right here from Langley.”

According to Lashley, Mitchell was a strong advocate for the potential warfighting capabilities of airplanes. After a hard fight with congressional and U.S. Navy officials, Mitchell gained approval in 1921 to test the lethality of airplane-dropped bombs on practice targets such as the Ostfriesland.

“The sinking of the Ostfriesland is, arguably, one of the top five most important events in Air Force history; it’s not too far to say that it helped push the Air Force towards becoming its own service,” Lashley said.

Now, aircraft far more advanced than the biplanes from a century ago are flying the same skies above the sunken battleship to celebrate the long legacy of Mitchell’s efforts.

At a ceremony celebrating the event’s centennial, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies, spoke about the legacy of Mitchell’s tests. He encouraged his audience to reflect on the history and progress of the Air Force that Mitchell fought hard to establish. “In the wake of World War 1, one of the bloodiest conflicts ever seen, a small group of Airmen were confident they had a better way to secure our nation’s interests. One that would take less time, put fewer lives at risk, and achieve decisive results. It was their courage, conviction and dedication that paved the way for the Air Force that our nation enjoys today,” Deptula said.

This centennial mission honors the legacy of Billy Mitchell and the 1st Provisional Air Brigade as well as providing a training opportunity for the units involved. More than just a simple recreation, the squadrons used all available 21st century technology to integrate 4th and 5th-generation fighters in a challenging offensive counter-air mission that enhances America’s First Team and showcases the Air Force’s progress since Mitchell’s tests.

“We have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, we have space, we have cyber, we have the most advanced fighter jets in the world,” said Lashley, “In my opinion, if Billy Mitchell were here, he’d be very impressed.”