Catch me if you can!

Barrel 0, Phantom 1

On Quora, somebody wanted to know: “Is it true that the only portion of Austria’s law on neutrality that is still completely in effect is that foreign military bases are not allowed in Austria?”

In fact, I once heard a nice little story back in my pilot days that illustrates Austria’s ongoing struggle to maintain its neutrality.

Back in the 60ies, a flight of McDonnell F-4 Phantom II out of Aviano were on a routine training flight over Northern Italy when they suddenly noticed they were just about to run out of fuel. Obviously, they hadn’t expected headwinds would be so strong. Anyway, the only airport within reach was Innsbruck.

Unfortunately, INN used to close up in the evening after the last scheduled flight had landed. It was growing dark, and the head of ATC had locked the tower for the night and was heading home on his bicycle when he heard the thundering noise of powerful jet engines reverberating from the surrounding mountains. He just managed to cycle back and turn on the landing lights in time for the flight to make a landing. In fact, their engines died while they were still on the runway!

The next morning, the Austrian authorities were in a state of panic – their precious neutrality had been violated by a foreign military force! Frantic diplomatic messages were exchanged, and a flight of Austrian fighters was dispatched to Innsbruck. Unfortunately, all Austria has at the time were a handful of antiquated used Saab 29 “Tunnan”, also known as „flying barrels”.

An Austrian official granted official permission for the U.S. fighters, which had been refueled, to take off in company with the Austrians who were to accompany the invaders to the border. By dialing back power almost to stalling speed, the Phantoms managed to slow down far enough for the Austrians to keep up initially, but the Brenner Pass, which marks the border, is only about 25 miles from INN, and the American flight leaders patience finally snapped. He signaled his pilots to ram their throttles, and the Phantoms disappeared in a cloud of vapor across the border into Italy.

Thus, a serious international incident was averted and Austria was allowed to continue to believe in its own strict neutrality.

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