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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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We approach Stratton’s F-15C where a fresh-faced kid has just finished hand-polishing the landing gear assembly. He sees us coming, jumps to his feet, and acknowledges Stratton, his commanding officer. I follow Stratton up an aluminum technician’s ladder. He slides into the cockpit while I stand on the ladder’s top rung. “Don’t touch anything,” he warns. “You could arm the weapons system.”

The dials and knobs are decrepit; nearly every painted surface is scuffed and chipped. The control stick looks like it might have been dragged behind a tractor for 60 miles. And I’m pretty sure that the tattered pilot’s seat came from the VW bus of a group of Deadheads, shortly after the ’77 spring tour. To discover where the magic happens, I have to peek beneath the forlorn facade. Integrated into both the interior and the exterior fuselage are several large compartments and caches. They once housed hefty pneumatic controls and bloated radar and weapons components that pre-dated the microcomputer revolution. But as technology shrank, the F-15’s flight systems got smaller and lighter, leaving room to cram in new innovations. Instead of languishing as decades passed, the Eagle got more agile and lethal.

By the 1980s, McDonnell Douglas engineers had gained enough space in the forward fuselage to add a second seat for the F-15E model, a potent air-to-ground strike fighter. It boasts under-wing fuel tanks to extend its range, a digital flight control system, low-altitude “tree-top” navigation, infrared night vision, and color cockpit displays. During Operation Desert Storm, F-15Es pounded Iraqi Scud missile sites, obliterated Saddam Hussein’s feeble air force, and rained cluster bombs on his Republican Guard troops. To detail the dozens of improvements since the Eagle’s debut—communications, navigation, propulsion, displays and instruments, electronic warfare, sensors, and weapons targeting—would drown you in acronyms. The list of upgrades that stokes F-15C pilots, however, is much shorter. Stratton has two favorites. The first is the Fighter Data Link, or “Fiddle.” In essence, Fiddle gathers flight data from other Fiddle-equipped aircraft and sews it into a single seamless display. In combination with other technology, Fiddle also collects information from airborne refueling tankers, E-3 airborne warning and control systems, and forces on the ground or at sea, even submarines. “It gives you a three-dimensional picture of the battlespace from a God’s-eye view,” says Stratton. “As a flight lead managing four airplanes and sometimes up to 14, I used to have to put what all the guys were telling me in my ear into this three-dimensional picture in my head. Now that is all presented to me graphically on my Fiddle display.”

Another prized advance is the Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System. “We just call it The Helmet, with the emphasis on the,” says Stratton. From his gear locker in the ready room, Stratton offers me his helmet to inspect. The visor is nearly opaque, and the shell is embedded with magnetic sensors that transmit real-time spatial data from a pilot’s head position to receivers inside the cockpit. During a dogfight, Stratton can cue and fire weapons at attacking aircraft, even during high-G maneuvers, simply by glancing at his enemy. “I really don’t know how we did missions before we had the helmet,”he admits.

Leestma, who has racked up more than 900 F-15C hours, tells me about a recent radar makeover called Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA. (As part of an Air Force F-15 program known as Golden Eagle, C-model airframes are undergoing stress tests, and those with the least wear and tear will receive an AESA system.) Conventional radars make sweeps that show solid objects as pings or blips on a head-up display. With each radar pass, the process repeats. The problem is that in a dynamic air-to-air situation, bad things can happen between cycles. “By the time the radar we have now does all its math, you might have something completely different out there,” says Leestma. AESA is fluid and encompassing. It uses multiple frequencies to continuously scan the skies, then stitches together a real-time radar image. Leestma explains, “It paints the picture of anything moving out in front of you and constantly updates it.”

The economy is quashing spendy military ventures, and fifth generation fighters are already suffering the wrath of the red pen. With every F-22 costing as much as $227 million, according to the Rand Project Air Force analytical team, President Obama ordered production halted at 187 jets and slashed further funding. The ongoing F-35 development program, a relative bargain at $155 million per airplane, is already over budget and behind schedule, causing Congressional colic. Cutbacks to its $300 billion-plus program are virtually certain. That’s just fine with F-15C pilots, who believe their dogfighters are plenty capable of defending America’s turf for the foreseeable future. “The F-15C is still our frontline air superiority fighter,” says Major John Boehm, a veteran F-15C pilot and program element monitor at Langley, whose job entails setting future hardware and software requirements for the Eagle fleet. “It was overbuilt in a good way, designed with enough extra margins to allow us to have all the options we have today for upgrading. Some call it the world’s greatest fighter based on its proven legacy. It has a kill ratio of 104-0.”

In a dogfight where an F-15C might face off against a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 or China’s Shenyang J-11, both fourth generation fighters, or even the mighty fifth generation F-22, Eagle pilots are confident they’d triumph. In fact, two pilots told me that if an F-22 uses its thrust vectoring to do a post-stall maneuver during a dogfight, there is a specific move that they can execute to win. This classified tactic is the F-15C pilot’s ace in the hole. Stratton acknowledges the tactic, but cautions that in air-to-air combat, no one move will always solve a particular problem. “Rather, it is much more likely that the F-15 pilot was able to fly his aircraft to its maximum potential [while] the F-22 pilot made a maneuver error. While the machine is important, and the F-22 enjoys a maneuvering envelope advantage over almost every aircraft, the man in the cockpit tilts the balance between success and failure. A pilot that is flying his F-15C to its maximum potential is a very tough adversary to defeat.”

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.”

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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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