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The F-15 Eagle: Legend, Legacy, and Lessons

The Air Superiority Fighter Need

During the Vietnam Conflict the United States Air Force (USAF) and the United States Navy (USN) used multirole aircraft for air-air combat. Prior to 1968 the USAF F-105s and F-4s scored all their air-air combat victories in the Vietnam Conflict. Prior to 1970 the USN scored almost all their air-air combat victories in the Vietnam Conflict with F-8s and F-4s.[i] After that F-4s scored all the USAF and USN victories in fighter vs. fighter combat.[ii] In the pre-1972 air-air combat U.S. aircraft had a 3:1 kill to loss ratio over the North Vietnamese Air Force. This was a big change from the Korean Conflict where F-86s boasted a 10:1 ratio over Communist aircraft.[iii] The USAF leaders believed it needed a modern version of the F-86. They needed an aircraft designed for the sole purpose of shooting down enemy aircraft. Development for the F-15 was done with the maxim, “Not a pound for air-to-ground.” In 1972 the USAF kill to loss ratio decreased to less than 2:1. The USN kill to loss ratio increased to 12.5:1. The USN attributed their improved kill to loss ratio to their Top Gun training program. There were other factors that may have contributed to the change in kill to loss ratio. The USAF faced a higher percentage of MiG-21s, the most advanced fighter in the North Vietnamese arsenal.[iv]

The Soviet Union was delivering MiG-23s and MiG-25 to its allies. A concern was these latest aircraft would have an advantage over the F-4 in air-air combat. The United States needed a better fighter aircraft than the F-4. The USAF chose the F-15 Eagle as its air superiority fighter and the F-16 Fighting Falcon as its multirole aircraft.


[i] … And Kill MiGs by Lou Drendel, Squadron/Signal Publications © 1974. USN A-1Hs scored 2 air-air victories and a USN A-4 scored a victory during this period.

[ii] … And Kill MiGs by Lou Drendel, Squadron/Signal Publications © 1974. The USAF credited B-52 gunners SSgt Samuel O. Turner and A1C Albert E. Moore with a MiG kill each.

[iii] Air War Over Korea by Larry Davis, Squadron/Signal Publications © 1982. Air-Air combat ratios given for the Korean Conflict range from about 8:1 to 14:1 depending on how the figures are tabulated. Recent data indicates these ratios were significantly exaggerated. They were generally believed at the time.

[iv] The USAF kills in 1972 were mostly MiG-21s with some MiG-19s. The USN’s 25 kills in 1972-1973 included 15 of the older MiG-17s. Overall the MiG-17s had a 1:4 kill ratio while the MiG-21s had a 1:2 kill ratio.

The Controversy

While Air Force pilots and leaders believed the F-15 was a winner some outside experts were skeptical of its capabilities. A batch of 108 F-15s purchased in 1977 cost $13,181 million each. This cost over 3 times as much as a batch of 835 F-4E purchased in 1974 for $4.108 million.[i] While the F-15 was technically superior to the F-4 was it worth the extra cost? In 1973 the USAF purchased F-5s for $1.6 million each. In mock dogfights between F-5Es and F-15s the kill ratio advantage of the F-15 was less than 1.4:1.[ii] The controversy died hard. Charles Mohr, in an article published on October 24, 1982, wrote:

But the reform spokesmen say that while the most advanced fighters such as the F-15 and F-14 are clearly superior in one-on-one contests, military exercises show that superiority is not demonstrable in the ‘many-on-many melee’ combat that would probably ensue in a war with the numerous Soviet forces.[iii]


[i] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.

[ii] Arsenal of Democracy, by Tom Gervasi, © 1977 by Tom Gervasi and Bob Adelman.

[iii] More Bucks Less Ban: How the Pentagon Buys Ineffective Weapons, Edited by Dina Rasor, © 1983 by The Fund For Constitutional Government Project on Military Procurement. Original Article; Drop in U.S. Arms Spurs Debate on Military Policy, by Charles Mohr, The New York Times, October 24, 1982.

The F-15 in Combat and Other Incidents

On October 10, 1976 the first F-15s arrived in Israel. On June 27, 1979 8 Syrian MiG-21s attempted to attack Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft that were attacking Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) positions in Lebanon. IAF F-15s shot down 4 MiG-21s and a Kfir also shot down a MiG. These were the first kills for the F-15 and Kfir. The IAF suffered no losses. F-15s shot down 4 more MiG-21s on September 24 with no IAF losses.[i]

On June 7, 1981 the IAF destroyed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor. The attack package was 8 F-16s with an escort of 6 F-15s. The F-15s flew over three Iraqi airfields as the F-16s carried out their attacks. The Iraqi Air Force didn’t challenge the IAF and all the Israeli aircraft returned safely.

An IAF F-15 shot down a Syrian MiG-25 on July 29, 1981. Two Syrian MiG-23s fell to IAF F-15s on April 21, 1982.[ii] The Syrians had positioned 19 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in the Bekaa Valley. These included the state of the art, for the time, SA-6 missiles. The IAF attacked these missiles on June 9. The Syrians sent over 100 aircraft to attack the IAF. In the ensuing air combat IAF F-15s and F-16s shot down numerous Syrian MiG-21s and MiG-23 without loss. The IAF put 10 of the SAM sites out of action. An F-15 took a direct hit from a SAM and though heavily damaged the pilot flew it back to Israel. The next day the IAF struck again. They shot down more Syrian aircraft and almost all of the SAM sites were damaged or destroyed.

The IAF F-15s have shot down 57 Syrian aircraft without loss. In 1983 IAF F-15 pilot Captain Zivi Nadivi collided with an IAF A-4 Skyhawk during a training exercise. The A-4 pilot ejected safely. Captain Nadivi felt he could control his F-15 so he stayed with the aircraft and landed safely. It was then he found his F-15 had lost a wing in the collision.[iii] This story was initially viewed as an urban legend until someone produced a picture of Nadivi’s Eagle.

In 1981 the USAF wanted a strike fighter to replace its F-111 Aardvark. The F-15E Strike Eagle won the competition against a strike version of the F-16. The F-15E had a similar airframe to the F-15D a training version of the F-15.

On June 5, 1984 an F-15D and an F-15C of 6 Squadron, Royal Saudi Air Force intercepted 2 Iranian F-4Es. The F-15D shot down a Phantom II with an AIM-7F, killing its crew. The F-15C damaged the other F-4E.[iv]

An F-15 almost shot down another F-15 with a Sidewinder missile over Alaska on June 28, 1990. The Sidewinder struck the F-15 and caused $1 million damage.[v]

On the night of January 17, 1991 Operation Desert Storm, the campaign to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, began. A MiG-25 shot down and killed USN F/A-18 pilot Lieutenant Commander Machael S. Speicher. This was the one of two Iraqi air-air victories against coalition aircraft during Operation Desert Storm.[vi] F-15s shot down 37 Iraqi aircraft. USAF F-15s shot down 35 aircraft, RSAF pilot A. S. al-Shamrani shot down 2 Mirage F-1EQs. The USAF F-15 victims included 2 MiG-25s and 5 MiG-29s. An F-15E Strike Eagle, crewed by Captains Richard Timothy Bennett and Daniel Bruce Bakke destroyed an Iraqi helicopter with a bomb.[vii] It is uncertain if the helicopter was destroyed while it was on the ground or in the air. Iraqi ground defenses shot down 2 F-15Es during Operation Desert Storm.[viii]

Soon after Operation Desert Storm the U.S. continued to conduct operations over Iraq. F-15 Eagles and Strike Eagles flew missions as part of Operation Northern Watch and Operation Southern Watch. On April 14, 1994 two F-15s mistook two U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for Iraqi attack helicopters. The F-15s shot down both helicopters killing all 26 one board.[ix]

F-15s also flew missions over the former Yugoslavia. During Operation Allied Force F-15s shot down 6 Serbian MiG-29s without loss. Lieutenant Colonel Cesar “Rico” Rodriguez added a third kill to the kills he made in Operation Desert Storm.[x]

F-15s have served in and continue to serve in every major USAF combat operation. F-15E crew members Lt. Col. Donald Cornwell, Lt. Col. Dylan Wells, Capt. Leigh Larkin, and Capt. Nicholas Tsoungus won the 2010 Mackay Trophy for a mission over Afghanistan on April 6, 2010. They flew their Strike Eagles to the aid of 30 coalition troops and killed 80 Taliban troops. F-15E pilot Captain Prichard Keely received the 2010 Col. James Jabara award for airmanship in 2010.[xi] F-15 pilot Captain Michael Polidor received the 2011 Col. James Jabara award for airmanship.

On February 25, 2021 two F-15E Strike Eagles attacked Iranian-backed milita groups in Syria. The Strike Eagles "dropped seven, precision-guided munitions, which totally destroyed nine facilities and partially destroyed two others, functionally destroying them" according to Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby.[xii]

F-15s have shot down over 100 enemy aircraft without suffering a loss in air-air combat. This 100+:0 record is unmatched. They destroyed over 60 aircraft on the ground and hundreds of other targets.

[i] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen © 1990.

[ii] Fighters Over Israel by Lon Nordeen © 1990.

[iii] F-15 flying with one wing by an Israeli Pilot, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LveSc8Lp0ZE

[iv] Air Combat Informaton Group, http://www.acig.info/CMS/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=181&Itemid=1. An Iranian pilot scored an ACM victory over an F-111.

[v] Pilot Didn’t Know He was Loaded, Washington Times, June 29, 1990.

[vi] There was reportedly a case of an Iraqi fighter shooting down another Iraqi fighter then the original fighter crashed. Airpower in the Gulf by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by the Air Force Association.

[vii] Airpower in the Gulf by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by the Air Force Association.

[viii] Airpower in the Gulf by James P. Coyne, © 1992 by the Air Force Association.

[ix] BlackFive, Remembering Eagle Flight, http://www.blackfive.net/main/2004/04/remembering_eag.html

[x] Colonel Cesar Rodriguez later served as the director of operations for the 332nd AEW during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

[xi] Former Goaltender Capt. Mike Polidor Earns 2011 Jabara Award for Airmanship, Feb 2, 2011, by Steven Simon Air Force Academy Development and Alumni Program Office. http://www.goairforcefalcons.com/sports/m-hockey/spec-rel/020211aaa.html

[xii] Defense Official Says F-15s Struck Iranian-Backed Militia Facilities in Syria, Feb. 26, 2021 by Terri Moon Cronk, DoD News, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2518111/defense-official-says-f-15s-struck-iranian-backed-militia-facilities-in-syria, last accessed 2/27/21.

F-15 and Contemporary U.S. Aircraft

Source:
Modern Fighters and Attack Aircraft by Bill Gunston
(c) 1980 by Salamander Books, Ltd.

 F-14C TomcatF-15CF-16

Engines

2x28,090lb thrust

2x23,810lb thrust

1x24,000lb thrust

Empty Weight

37,500lbs

28,000lbs

14,800lbs

Max Speed at height

Mach 2.34

Mach 2.5

Mach 1.95

Service Ceiling

56,000+'

70,000+'

60,000'

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Robert Sacchi

Comments

Robert Sacchi (author) on February 13, 2017:

Thank you for reading. The F-15 was a game changer.

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on February 12, 2017:

I'm an Air Force veteran also, I served from 1982-6. I was an Avionics Technician at Beale AFB Ca and in Keflavik naval air station in Iceland.

Wow, I wouldn't have wanted to be in air combat in the Vietnam era, we sure have come a long way in our technical prowess over our enemies with the F-15.

Robert Sacchi (author) on December 28, 2016:

Yes, I've seen that video. The mistaken helicopter shootdowns was a terrible incident. In cases such as that there is usually enough blame to go around.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on December 27, 2016:

Robert

Great article about this aircraft, by the way there is a YouTube video of an F16 losing a wing and still landing safely, they show actual footage of the damaged wing along with the pilot talking about the incident.

I was in Iraq when the two helicopters were shot down and knew a couple of the soldiers killed that day, I believe it was put down to pilot error, but it was the AWACs got things wrong as they gave permission for firing the missiles without 'visual' confirmation.

Good information here.

Happy new year

Lawrence

Robert Sacchi (author) on December 05, 2016:

Yes, in the youtube video Zivi Nadivi tells all about the incident.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 05, 2016:

The prices of these war machines are mind boggling. That being said...sadly we do need them. As to that pilot landing the plane safely...glad he did. That must have been a great shock to him that he did so without one of the wings.

Robert Sacchi (author) on December 04, 2016:

Consider the F-35 which costs about $100 million each:-) Front line combat aircraft are expensive. Historically front line fighters have gotten more expensive but lasted longer.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on December 04, 2016:

I have to agree with Peggy...what a price tag! But they have longevity, and an impressive service history.

Robert Sacchi (author) on December 04, 2016:

Yes, one lesson is you get what you pay for. The price tag isn't so much when one considers they have been in service for over 30 years and are likely to stay in service for many more. Zivi Nadivi said in the video had he known his aircraft was missing a wing he would have ejected.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 04, 2016:

Wow...that is one impressive aircraft. It also has a hefty price tag. Amazing that one pilot flew one to safety while actually missing a wing on the aircraft!