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.
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.