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Over its 35-year career, the F-15C (here on a training mission over the Pacific Ocean) remains the air combat champ, with 104 victories and no losses. (USAF/MASTER SGT MAURICE KRAUSE)

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?

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While driving through downtown Mountain Home, Idaho, on a gray February morning, I notice something troubling: Mountain Home has no mountains. Later I learn why. In the 1880s, the town was relocated. Its original site was an Overton trail stagecoach stop called Rattlesnake Station. A post office, a farmhouse, and a few clapboard structures were nestled in the foothills of the Sawtooth Range, where snowy peaks soar above 10,000 feet. The outpost served a gunslinging clientele of trappers, miners, and explorers, and, true to the romance of the American west, survival there required a will and an ability to fight. But in 1883, the Oregon Short Line railroad laid tracks seven miles southeast, on the Snake River Plateau. A more comfortable life beckoned, so the town moved. And that’s when Mountain Home lost its soul.

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Its rebirth began in August 1943, when the U.S. Army Air Forces built an airfield on the outskirts of town to train B-24 Liberator crews. Soon the base expanded, until it encompassed 134,000 acres. In 1991, the F-15 Eagles arrived. Built by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), the F-15 made its first flight on July 27, 1972, and the C model remains the only fighter in the U.S. arsenal designed exclusively for air-to-air combat. Its pilots have restored to Mountain Home the sensibility of the gunslinger, whose singular pursuit leaves no safety net: It’s kill or be killed.

But after more than 30 years in service, the F-15 dogfighters are becoming an endangered species. To blame are the multi-role, fifth generation Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. By 2025, the ambidextrous multi-roles, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), will have replaced all F-15Cs, a drawdown that’s already under way. Some F-15Cs are headed to the Air National Guard; others are being cannibalized for parts. A handful of pilots will get reassigned to the F-22, but an unlucky few might end up holding the joystick controlling a UAV, or grounded at desk jobs.

For their part, Department of Defense wonks claim that America’s enemies reside in caves, unreachable by aircraft. F-15C pilots see it differently. The threat of an airborne attack has diminished, they say, precisely because the Eagle has maintained air dominance over the battlefield for nearly four decades. “We are a victim of our own success,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mark McGeorge, who is chief of flying operations and training at Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia, and has 2,800 hours in F-15s. “If we don’t maintain our advantage of air superiority, then maybe our enemies will decide to challenge our aircraft directly.”

“There are just not going to be enough airplanes anymore,” declares 42-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Jim Stratton. A Chicago native, Stratton is the commander of Mountain Home’s 390th Fighter Squadron, one of four under the 366th Fighter Wing. “We’re taking on more risk because some elements within the DOD assume that air superiority is going to be a given.” Stratton has flown combat missions in Kosovo and Iraq. To his dismay, his entire squadron—21 F-15Cs and 13 fighter pilots—will be disbanded by September.

Now you’d think the Eagle top guns—the pilots refer to each other as “Bros”—would be hankering to get behind the stick of an F-22 (and eventually an F-35, due in 2016), with all its “Gucci” technology, as 29-year-old Captain Benjamin Leestma puts it. But they’re not. “The thing is, [in multi-role fighters] there is so much information that you have to weed through to get to what you really care about,” says Leestma, Mountain Home’s chief of weapons and tactics. Pilots like Leestma joined the Air Force to fly the legendary F-15Cs. “I have spent six years working my tail off to get to the point where I am,” he says. “The jet is a twin-tail, twin-engine, combat-proven, air-dominant fighter. Being single-seat allows me to make and execute instant decisions without coordinating with another crew member. In my experience, the speed at which the pilot can make and execute decisions is often the key to success in air-to-air combat.” Leestma concedes that the F-22 and F-35 are indeed be-all, do-all workhorses, but complains that the pilots flying them rely too much on gadgetry and too little on grit. The Bros are a vanishing breed, bemoans another Eagle pilot. And they warn that mothballing F-15s while not pursuing a fifth generation air superiority jet—one designed principally for dogfighting—is a mistake, a risk to America’s national security.

The news is not all bad. Sweeping technological upgrades since its inception have rendered the F-15C a formidable 21st century weapon, while additional add-ons in the near-term will prolong its viability. What upsets the F-15C pilots at Mountain Home is that in the interim the Air Force will begin curtailing the Eagle’s mission as a dogfighter. If, by chance, the country goes to war where air dominance is contested, the multi-role platforms will supposedly handle dogfights just fine. But new recruits to the multi-role programs won’t spend long hours flying dogfight scenarios. Stick time is limited—operating an F-22 costs $50,800 an hour, compared to $31,800 for an Eagle—and there are just too many other systems, procedures, and missions to master.

The fifth generation assumption is that pilots will eliminate the enemy before having to engage at close range. “At the end of the day, if you are dogfighting in an F-22, lots of mistakes happened in the previous 80 miles,” says Stratton. But mistakes do happen. Stratton also worries that those who fly the multi-roles aren’t hardwired for air-to-air combat. Of his F-15C Bros, he says, “We attract a certain portion of the population to the job, guys who bring that controlled aggression and cunning and desire to never lose, no matter what the odds are.”

Last year I went to Cuba and for two weeks drove 1,100 miles around the island. No doubt you’ve seen photos of the vintage 1957 Chevys there, those pre-Castro leftovers that roam the countryside in mint condition, engines purring, as if they’re fresh off the lot. I had a chance to inspect one of these stalwart gems up close. Its owner showed me how he had retrofitted his with a diesel motor from a Mercedes-Benz, and installed air conditioning and a thumping audio system. Surely Chevy’s engineers never envisioned the kinds of modifications that have kept this classic alive in Cuba for a half-century. But its sturdy frame, modular architecture, and generous engine compartment left ample room for modernization. The story of the ’57 Chevy is the story of the F-15 Eagle.

Stratton walks me out to the Mountain Home flightline, where an icy wind scours the tarmac. F-15Cs are aligned like sentries, their wing pylons laden with air-to-air missiles. Maintenance crews scurry from airplane to airplane, checking and rechecking avionics, engine
specs, hydraulics, control surfaces, and weapons systems.

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About Michael Behar

Based in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Behar (michaelbehar.com) writes about aerospace, adventure travel, science, and the environment.

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