Flying the F-15 is easy. Learning to employ it effectively is another story. At the time I started flying the F-15 there were only F-15As, a single seat fighter, and F-15Bs, a two seat training version that was fully combat capable. An operational F-15 squadron would have 20 or 22 F-15As and two F-15Bs. The goal for pilots in an operational squadron was to keep the two seaters grounded as much as possible because no one wanted to fly with a kibitzer. The fourtraining squadrons at Luke had 16 single seaters and six family models for transition training. F-15Cs and F-15Ds were on the drawing table and McDonnell Douglas was still promising “Not a pound for air-to-ground” but in their deep dark secret rooms in St. Louis the F-15E was already a corporate strategy even if the Air Force wasn’t ready to hear it yet.
The Air Force has two transition courses for new F-15 pilots – the long course for those who have never flown fighters, usually straight out of pilot training, which lasts six months and the short course for pilots with experience in other fighters which runs four months. After 10 years of flying the F-4, including one combat tour in Vietnam, I loved Double Ugly dearly. While it was a bit of a beast to fly it was a rugged and capable airplane and it brought many crews home after sustaining some serious battle damage. I was selected to be an F-15 instructor pilot after 3 years on the Red Flag Staff at Nellis so I went through the short, four month transition course and then right into the two month instructor pilot course. After my first flight in the F-15 I had a new love and I never looked back at the F-4 with any regret. Six months later (with 60 hours of flight time in the jet) I was an F-15 instructor pilot. At the time the Air Force had a rule that you couldn’t go cross country (away from your home base) single ship if you had less than 100 hours in type. So there I was, an instructor but I couldn’t go cross country by myself. Having seen the quantum leap in performance and capability between the F-4 and the F-15 I can only imagine the advances from the F-15 to the F-22 but from what I can tell they are every bit as dramatic.
But back to learning to fly the F-15. It is an easy and forgiving airplane to fly. Kind of like a Cessna but the approach speeds are different and the power response is better. The handling characteristics are almost docile as long as you don’t ask it to do anything dumb (outside its performance envelope). One of the confidence maneuvers every pilot learns is the nose high, low airspeed recovery. Simply put you point the nose straight up, wait for it to run out of airspeed (it will run out of airspeed if you’re not in afterburner) and see what happens. What happens is pretty dramatic and very reassuring. All you have to do is keep the controls neutral (if you’re the type who can’t leave well enough alone the instructor will tell you to let go of the stick and grab the canopy handle bars during the recovery because the airplane is smart enough to save you).With the nose pointed straight up when you run out of airspeed the airplane starts a tail slide, fuel vents out the trailing edge wing vents and floats forward over the wing. Impressive! Then aerodynamics take over and the Eagle Jet realizes that the pointy end isn’t in front any more. The correction will get your attention. There is always some inertia and the nose will either continue back and fall through the horizon – the more comfortable, positive G solution – or it will flop forward through the horizon – the lunch in your mask, negative G solution. In either case you are now looking at a wind screen full of dirt as the jet points itself straight down to get some flying speed. All you have to do then is a simple dive recovery. Not a great tactical maneuver but it does demonstrate the excellent handling qualities of the airplane. You can also do a full aft stick stall from level flight and fall like a leaf until you put the stick forward and fly out of it to recover.
Before your first flight you get three weeks of academics and simulators and the program is geared for success. The academic instructors and course materials are excellent (I can say that without reservation because I was never an academic instructor). There’s a lot of information but it’s well presented and easy to learn. This is not where pilots wash out of the program contrary to some shows that may have suggested otherwise. Needless to say your first two orthree flights are in a two seat version and the instructor is in the jet with you. The Air Force approach is to learn the theory in academics, get a demonstration, practice in the simulator and then do it in the jet. So on the first flight the instructor demonstrates the preflight walk around but you’ve already done all the start, taxi and take off procedures in the simulator so the instructor monitors all this from the back seat. He or she will probably talk you through the nose high, low airspeed recovery and other maneuvers in the training area like loops, rolls,and other acrobatics. Back in the traffic pattern the instructor will demonstrate the first landing and after that it’s your turn. After two or three flights in a two seater with some formation work and more attempts to dent the runway your instructor is tired of riding in your back seat and it’s time to fly single seat with your instructor either leading you or chasing you in another airplane.
Regardless of the weather every departure and arrival is an IFR procedure to get your instrument qualification and the F-15 is a fantastic airplane to fly in weather. The standard flight instruments are easy to interpret and then there is the heads up display or HUD with all the same information presented on the windscreen. The airplane is rock solid on ILS final. Not a big deal at Luke AFB, Arizona where it’s ceiling and visibility unlimited every day but it feels really good when you’re cracking minimums in Germany or England.
Once you’ve learned the basics of flying the F-15 it’s time to start learning how to employ all the systems and executing tactics. The Air Force approach is stillwalk before run so you get plenty of academics and simulator time to learn the radar and other systems. Along the way you have been using the anti-jam, secure radio system so that has become second nature but in the beginninggetting the radios into secure mode so you can talk to other members in your flight on tactical frequencies is worse than trying to run your computer with DOS commands instead of using Windows. After you know how to run the radar you learn intercept geometry and how to maneuver to transition from a beyond visual range (BVR) environment to an eyes on the target visual engagement.
Now it’s time to learn to dog fight. Of course we can’t say it that any more so it’s called Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) which sounds a lot more professional but it’s still just as fun. This is just two airplanes/pilots against each other. It’s called 1 v 1. The instructor’s job in one airplane is to be the learning tool while the student in the other airplane learns offensive, defensive and neutral basic fightermaneuvers. Things like low and high speed yo-yos, lag rolls, cut off, Immelmans, pirouettes, scissors, energy management and the use of radial G while maneuvering in the vertical. This is where pilots can start having trouble if they haven’t flown fighters before or if their previous fighter didn’t have an air-to-air combat role. We humans are very used to a two dimensional world and when you start maneuvering in the vertical it’s harder to keep track of things and predict where the adversary is going to be after 90, 180 or 360 degrees of turn. You also have to learn minimum and maximum engagement ranges and employment envelopes for the weapons you can shoot: long range AIM-120 AAMRAM radar guided missiles, medium range AIM-9 heat seeking Sidewinders, or short range 20MM cannon – which button to push and when. The beauty and the bane of the F-15 in this area is the HOTAS capability. It stands for Hands On Throttle and Stick. Once you have things properly set up you can now work the radar, select and fire any weapon and never take your hand off the stick or throttle. Each control button on the stick or throttle is multi functional and it can go up, down, in, out, left and right. Depending on what you have selected on the weapons master mode each button can change functions. We called it playing the piccolo and like playing any musical instrument you have to sublimate the activity because you don’t have time to think about it in the middle of a fight. When you want to talk on the radio or select a different radar range to lock on or designate a target, initiate a transponder interrogation or select a weapon, the speed break, chaff or flares your fingers just need to do it.
The next step is Air Combat Maneuvers (ACM) where you learn to fly as a wingman with your leader while you beat up on one other airplane (2 v 1) using coordinated, sequential or counter rotating attacks. Now not only do you have to keep up with and project the movements of the bandit you also have to know where your leader is and what he or she is doing and going to do next. It’s like a bunch of spaghetti in the sky and you have to be able to make sense of it. Flight discipline is supremely important. Lapses in disciple are not tolerated. While I was flying F-4s as a lieutenant in North Vietnam one of the senior guys in my squadron left his leader without making a call and getting clearance from his leader to engage a MiG he saw. He got the MiG but left his leader naked in the process. He was grounded when we landed and transferred out of the squadronthe next day to a staff job in Siagon. Discipline in the real world is not like the movie “Top Gun”.
But wait, there’s more! Now it’s time for multiple friendlies to go against multiple adversaries and we call it Air Combat Tactics (ACT) and just to make it more interesting we try to have each side flying a different kind of airplane. In that case we call it Dissimilar Air Combat Tactics (DACT). (2 v 2, 4 v 4, or 4 v X) Now it’s no longer just a matter of flying your airplane and using your systems to the max. Situational awareness and the ability to capitalize on your strong points while exploiting your opponent’s weak points are what we call force multipliers. The F-15 radar is fantastic. In fact it’s the reason the F-15 is a big as it is. When the Air Force specified the performance capabilities of what was to become the F-15 much of it was defined by the radar capabilities they wanted. Hughes designed a radar that could do what the Air Force wanted and McDonnell Douglas designed an airplane that could carry the radar, 4 radar missiles, 4 heat missiles and a gun and it had to have more thrust than it weighed so Pratt and Whitney had to come up with two engines that could push it through the sky at Mach 2. You can select up to a 160 mile range scale on the radar scope. I flew a training mission against a friend of mine doing an advanced tactics air-to-ground mission with a four ship of F-4s. I had a two ship of F-15s to defend an airfield he was to attack. He had a cosmic low level plan and could use any formation he wanted. All I knew was they were coming from the north. For safety of flight reasons we all had to be on the same radio frequency so while they were running basically radio silent he could hear my calls to my wingman. We took up a medium altitude defensive orbit just north of the airfield they were to attack and ran a race track pattern to keep one of us looking north all the time. In the debrief after the flight my friend said his heart dropped through the floor of his cockpit when I called my initial radar contact and describe their exact formation, spacing and altitude to my wingman while they were over 60 milesaway from the target. They were “dead” before they entered the restricted area where the airfield was located.
Finally, let’s add an element of command and control from outside your cockpit. AWACS or ground radars can see farther than your radar and tell you over the radio where people are, what they are doing and help you get your radar looking in the right direction. But today’s technology can do better than that with a neat system called Fighter Data Link or FDL. FDL is a super sophisticated wide area network in today’s computer language. Anybody who is in the net shares their radar information with everyone else in the net. So right next to the radar display is a situation or SIT display. It shows everything everybody in my flight is seeing on their radar and shares that with AWACS and the ground radars and they share everything they are seeing with me on my display with no radio calls to garbage up the frequency. But the techno geeks didn’t stop there. What if we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Let’s give the aircraft symbols on the SIT display color codes. What if we don’t know if they are good or bad? OK we’ll use a third color. Let’s tell you what altitude they are at, how fast and what direction they are going. If they are friendly we can even tell you what type they are and their mission. It’s data overload! As I manage my flight and my battle space I actually have to filter the information on the SIT so it only tells me about things in my area of responsibility (AOR). All this neat stuff in the cockpit is mesmerizing and a hard thing to learn is to get your head out of the cockpit and visually clear for that one SOB that snuck through or worse yet you keep your head looking at the radar and SIT while you blow through the formation you were supposed to attack. Remember, the important stuff like your designated, primary target is displayed on the HUD so at 10 miles you better be eyeballs out of the cockpit and ready to shoot if you haven’t already identified your target as hostile and taken a long range BVR shot.
The F-15 flys like a dream and the systems capabilities are staggering. Think what the F-22 can do with its stealth, mil power supersonic cruise, increased maneuverability and even more systems capabilities. Jealous? Yes, but I’m still very happy I had the opportunity to fly the F-15.