The Last Gunslinger
The F-15C is the only dedicated dogfighter left in the U.S. military fleet. Why isn't the Air Force replacing it?
- By Michael Behar
- Air & Space magazine, July 2010
USAF/MASTER SGT MAURICE KRAUSE
(Page 3 of 4)
A number of features make the F-15C an ideal dogfighter. With a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than 1:1, it is one of the few fighters with that power advantage, so it can accelerate during a vertical climb. And the large lifting surface of the fuselage enables the Eagle to keep flying even with a lot of battle damage.
The Eagle also blends a computerized system with old-fashioned manual controls. Other fighters, particularly the F-22, are pure fly-by-wire. In the F-15C, say its pilots, a pilot can override his computer warnings and go beyond the edge to get that little bit of boost to survive. In the F-22, the computer system simply won’t allow that, as it thinks the airplane will break up in flight—not good when you’re in the midst of a dogfight and need to execute tactical maneuvers.
Major David Skalicky, leader of the F-22 Aerial Demonstration Team, and a former F-15C pilot, disputes the F-15C pilots’ claim of an advantage. “The F-22 will aerodynamically out-perform and out-power the F-15 in every scenario,” says Skalicky. “That isn’t to say that on exceptionally rare occasions, F-22 pilots haven’t lost to F-15 pilots in practice dogfights due to poor maneuver selection. However, the credit for victory in that scenario belongs to the F-15 pilot, not the airframe.”
The majority of active-duty Eagle pilots flying today were born after the aircraft went into service. So to find out if anyone expected the F-15 to remain a viable dogfighter for more than a quarter-century, I tracked down those who designed and built it. They gather every three years for a reunion on the anniversary of the F-15’s inaugural flight. Donn Byrnes, who flew F-86 Sabres and F-84 Thunderjets in the 1950s and later spent six years on the Air Force side of the team designing and developing the SR-71 Blackbird, was the system program office project manager for the F-15 airframe. He got involved with the Eagle program in 1969, coordinating with McDonnell Douglas engineers during the early blueprint stages, and stayed through mid-1975.
The 78-year-old retired colonel is panting when I reach him by telephone at his home in Los Lunas, New Mexico. “Sorry, I just hauled in a cord of firewood,” explains Byrnes, who wrote the book Air Superiority Blue, a retelling of the Eagle’s birth. I ask Byrnes what spawned the sudden demand for an air superiority fighter, something the Air Force hadn’t shown an interest in since it procured the P-51 Mustang in 1940. “We had our tail feathers burned off in Vietnam by the MiG-19, and if we went to war with Russia, we would be in deep trouble,” he says. “So we wanted to put together a machine that when fitted with a skillful pilot, who is aggressive and courageous, would have the ability to turn and burn and kill whatever he comes across.”
Byrnes agrees with most Eagle pilots that the F-15’s longevity is a direct result of its singular mission. “We designed the F-15 to do what we wanted it to do, and nothing else.” Byrnes is a critic of the multi-role concept: “You don’t want to make an airplane be the Swiss Army knife of a fighter,” he says. “I’m absolutely not in love with the idea. The F-35 is the worst nightmare of hardware idiocy. It does everything wrong. You need a long-legged fighter, not a short, fat one.”
Byrnes credits chief Air Force engineer Frederick Rall for championing the F-15’s robust and redundant design. “His mantra was: The first failure can’t kill you, and that the only failure we could define that you could not recover from was the stick busting off in the cockpit.” Consider the story of Israeli F-15 pilot Zivi Nedivi, who during a training exercise in 1983 hit and destroyed an A-4 Skyhawk. The collision sheared off all but two feet of Nedivi’s right wing. He punched the afterburners to generate lift over the fuselage and managed to land.
The Air Force purchased its last F-15 in 2001, and the 499 Eagles that remain in the fleet (C, D, and E models) are, on average, 20 years old. Meanwhile, foreign sales, mainly to Singapore and South Korea, could keep manufacturing plants at Boeing chugging along for at least another few years. “Given the end of the F-22 program, if force structure begins to look really bad, the Air Force could buy a few more F-15s,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, a military consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia. “Every day the line stays open, it keeps alive that chance.” A new prototype, the F-15 Silent Eagle, has a stealthy, radar-absorbent coating. “Singapore and South Korea are getting planes that are extremely capable, with the latest systems and sensors,” says Aboulafia.