By lex on Sat – December 13, 2003
Actually, four of them. The McDonnell-Douglas variety.
To my way of thinking, the McDonnell-Douglas F-15 Eagle is probably the most beautiful American fighter. It also demonstrates (in the C-variant), the purest example I know of the fighter as a Platonic “form.” The perfect fighter, undiluted by multi-mission compromises. The F-15C will carry no air-to-ground ordnance; it sniffs at “moving mud.”
Its relatively large size can appear at first glance a disadvantage. But that same size enables it to hold two enormously powerful engines, and the fuel to feed them for significant time periods – or significant speed (but not both, of course). It also allows it to carry a wonderful number and variety of air-to-air weapons. And the large nose is a great place to stuff a huge radar antenna, enabling greater output power, and hence long-range radar awareness.
It is not as hard-turning as an F-16, nor as nimble as an FA-18 . In a visual one vs one engagement, these are disadvantages, given relatively equal pilot skills.
But the Eagle pilot in a visual fight is there because he chose to be, or because he made a mistake – not because he had to be. If he chooses to cruise in the low 50’s, or high 40’s, he can at mach 2 rain missiles on you with relative impunity, and then saunter away like a New York socialite from the coat check area, perfectly unconcerned at your protestations. He will see you first, have the first shot and then watch with cold, calculating interest as you try to defend. The moment you try to get back into the fight, he’ll shoot you again. And so on.
So yah, I think the Eagle is a thing of beauty. Especially in my gunsight.
As a mid-grade lieutenant, I went with my squadron on a detachment from Lemoore, California to Eglin AFB, Florida, in the Florida panhandle. We took five jets and the USAF, as has become customary, paid for everything but our gas. Their training squadron was doing an instructor pilot refresher, and we were the meat on the table. And at first, until we learned their rules, they tore into us with great gusto. We were forced to endure debriefs on the instrumented range debriefing auditorium which showed their four-ships destroy in detail our four-ships with no losses to themselves. Their senior wing staff would come and sit in the back, chuckling to themselves. It was humiliating, and the best we could do was go on (pretty damned fun) liberty in nearby Fort Walton beach and Destin, brooding over our beers and plotting revenge.
Training was a factor here: The Eagle pilots were all instructors in an already mature airframe, who had lived and breathed air to air combat for years. The FA-18’s were still relatively new to the fleet, primarily focused on ground attack, and most of our senior pilots had grown up in A-7 Corsairs – a pure attack aircraft, subsonic, un-sexy, slow. My own four-ship lead was a particularly egregious example of a guy still stuck in the single-seat, single-tail, single engine mud moving mindset. For him, the FA-18, with all its multi-mission capability, was just a fast A-7.
The USAF also gave themselves the Ground Control Intercept (or GCI) instructors, senior guys with thousands of intercepts. To us, they gave a fresh graduate of the GCI school.
Gradually, we accustomed ourselves to the USAF rules, and we did what Navy pilots will always do when faced with a disadvantage – we improvised, we innovated, we overcame. In short, we cheated.
That evened the kill ratios somewhat, but wasn’t entirely satisfying. The Eagles were still doing slightly better than we were, flying the tactics they would use in combat. We were doing things we’d never do in the real world, just to sneak a guy in.
So it came to pass one morning towards the end of the detachment when I took off as dash-2 of our four ship, with old “muddle through” as my lead. The second two-ship was led by a pretty good guy. We fought our first hack to a draw, and were setting up for our second run. Three and Four were a little low on gas. My lead pushed us towards the threat, but far too slowly – he was always too slow to get the throttles up, I guess his mind couldn’t think at the higher speeds. I remember thinking that we were going to get creamed. In the first volley of missiles, the Eagle I was targeting got called out by the umpire – I had gotten a kill. Our Three and Four had to bingo to the field, they were out of gas, and out of the fight. My lead was also “killed” in the first exchange, leaving me 1v3 with the remaining Eagles.
Which sounds like a bad place to be, but the upside was that I didn’t have to worry about de-conflicting friend from foe – the visual signatures of the F-15 and the FA-18 are grossly similar, and it is considered bad form to shoot one of your wingmen, a “blue-on-blue.” The rules of engagement required a visual identification, or VID, but anyone who was not me had to be a bad guy.
The Eagle wingie of the guy I’d killed in the first volley had bugged south to clear the fight. The other Eagle two-ship, momentarily distracted by our two-ship heading to the field, got pulled away from fight center. Their controller cleared the picture for them, and one pitched back towards me while the other trailed our returning element for a few more, critical seconds. It was a high aspect, visual merge – and a short, brutal fight. I won, he was out. Two to go.
A belly check 30 seconds later when I got my airspeed back showed the wingman of the guy I had just killed bugging out back to the north, temporarily out of situational awareness, or SA. He was making good time, too – ears pinned back. I had a 10,000 foot altitude advantage though, and used it to run him down out of the sun, and stick a missile in his back. He was out, and I smiled grimly inside my mask – THREE!
The smile faded a bit when I realized that I was “through the number,” or supersonic right over a noise-sensitive island south of the coast, a place where rich people kept yachts in their slips and the USAF complaint line number in their speed dials. No way I hadn’t broken windows down there with my sonic boom, no way they don’t find out it was me who did it on an instrumented range.
Sic transit gloria, nothing to be done about it now. One more Eagle to kill. I’ve been in this fight for about 90 seconds now.
My controller, the fresh graduate snapped me south, towards the guy who had blown through about 15 miles and was now re-enaging towards me. I get a quick lock, and set up for the high aspect merge. I could have “cheated” and called a shot at 10 miles or so, but we were still technically in a VID scenario – I’d had a pretty good day so far, no sense soiling it with second-guessing in the debrief. And anyway I was feeling 10 feet tall and bulletproof by now.
But my adversary failed to find me on radar, and his controller got scope-locked and snapped him back to the south. 180 degrees away from me, at five miles away. Planform, yep – that’s an Eagle. Fox-2 belly shot.
I headed back to the field, savoring the moment. When I got back to the flight line and shut down, a half a dozen of my junior officer brothers were waiting for me by the ladder – “Lex, what did you do?”
Uh-oh, I remember thinking – that speed excursion over the hoi-polloi housing area. I’m farked, wonder how much this is going to cost?
But then they screamed, “you killed all four of them – in front of the commanding general.” Turns out that the wing commander had invited his CG to watch the slaughter of the USN innocents on the range debriefing display in real time – he had stormed out of the building at the end of the fight, furious. My brothers lifted me up on their shoulders and carried me to the line shack – our sailors caught the enthusiasm, they had been catching guff from the USAF enlisted guys for the last two weeks. We had our revenge.
During the debrief, we had to struggle not to gloat. After all, sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.
But I still remember that as one of the best flights I ever had, and smile at the memory. And no one mentioned the sonic boom. Which I thought was generous.