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 4 of 4)
For a guy integral to the design of the world’s greatest fighter jet, you’d think Byrnes might be a bit wistful to see the F-15 destined for the boneyard. He’s not. In fact, he’s dismayed that the Air Force never acquired a fifth generation dogfighter. “It’s the only fighter in modern times that has been in constant production for 35 years—who would have thought—and I think it’s because we didn’t have our act together to buy another one,” he says. “When you kick pilots out in the dark and say to them, ‘Go find what that is and kill it,’ riding an old horse is not the way to succeed. You are asking them to take an airplane guaranteed for 4,000 flight hours with airframes that already have about 6,000—way past their approved fatigue life—and then rat race with them.”
Very few Eagle pilots think the F-22 or F-35 will eliminate the need for a dedicated air superiority fighter with a skilled pilot. If you’re a multi-role pilot, “intel hands you a target package, you fly the black line, drop the bomb, and come back,” says Stratton. “Multi-roles can do different missions, but their primary mission—the reason we bought them—is to drop bombs. A guy that is going to go drop a bomb has been given a discrete target. There is no decision-making. In the F-15C, we’re told to protect a battlespace. It’s a much more fluid environment.”
UAVs, such as Predator drones and their offspring, which undoubtedly will be more sophisticated, could take on dogfights in the future. In fact, some experts predict the F-35 will be the last manned fighter ever built. This deeply troubles F-15C pilots, who know that once their Eagles are scrapped, they could get reassigned to UAV duty. Imagine training to race a Formula One speedster, only to be told that you’ll be touring the track in a Prius. “I’d shoot myself,” says Leestma. “[Flying UAVs] is a totally different mindset. My skills are not transferable. I am putting myself in a position where my pink body is on the line. I’ve gotta kill a guy before he kills me…. Personally I don’t think there is a replacement for [a pilot who would] actually make that decision to hit the pickle button and shoot somebody.”
listening to Leestma, I can’t help recalling what happened when the Oregon Short Line arrived in Idaho. Survival no longer hinged on tenacity and resolve. The multi-role jets might herald the future of warfare, with their big bag of tricks to defend the skies. But in both culture and cunning, the dogfighters are the descendants of the gunslingers at Rattlesnake Station, who never went anywhere without their six-shooters, and at high noon, knew how to kill with terrifying precision.
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and environmental issues.