Cold War Eagle Driver: F-15 pilot reveals all

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Paul leads a quartet of Eagles over Alaska.

During the Cold War, the most formidable Western fighter was the F-15 Eagle. From his part in the first USAF ‘Bear-H’ intercept, to tangling with elite Aggressor pilots and the dangers of dogfighting low over the sea, Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford describes the perils and joys of flying the best fighter in the world. 

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What were you first impressions of the F-15?

The F-15 was barely three years old when I started flying it. It even smelled new. It was the state of the art in 1978, and coming from the comparatively primitive T-37, a quantum leap beyond anything I’d experienced. My overwhelming first impression was of power. Once started, with both engines at idle, it strained against the chocks. Taxiing out, you had to work the brakes constantly to keep it from rolling too fast. From my first takeoff to my last, the thrust was exhilarating. Additionally: it was tight, quiet inside, and wonderfully smooth in the air.”

What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding about the F-15? One I hear constantly is that it can accelerate in a 90-degree vertical climb. No. When you see an F-15 doing a vertical takeoff at an air show, what you’re actually seeing is a jet slowing down: the technique is to stay flat and low after liftoff until you have 400-450 knots, then pull up at 4-5 Gs into a near-vertical climb. You’re slowing down the whole way, but the folks on the ground don’t see that.”

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The time Paul was a frontcover model.

What are the best things about the F-15?

“The excellent radar, the ergonomically designed weapons controls on the stick and throttles, the weapons displays on the HUD (now projected onto the pilot’s helmet visor, but that came after I flew the jet so I can’t speak from personal experience), the high seating position and unrestricted cockpit visibility. The Eagle is a direct descendent of the F-86 Sabre, another outstanding air-to-air fighter with great cockpit visibility. Did I mention the cockpit’s also quite roomy? Having flown in Century-series fighters (and once in a T-33), I’m here to tell you that’s a big deal.”

 

…and the worst? 

“Its size. These days potential enemy fighters are as large or larger than the F-16, and perhaps size isn’t the issue it once was. In my day the primary threat we trained against was the MiG-21. He could see us at a distance of ten or more miles; we couldn’t see him until five miles or less, and that could make all the difference in who gets to the merge unobserved with a huge initial advantage.”

What was the most scared you’ve been on a mission? 

“That’s easy. It was the time I almost hit the water during my first Eagle tour with the 32nd TFS at Soesterberg AB, the Netherlands. It was 1979 and I’d been flying the Eagle for less than a year. I was still a wingman, not yet a flight lead, but they trusted me enough to send me out by myself during a NATO exercise to intercept a two-ship of RAF Leuchars F-4Ks over the North Sea. There was a solid cloud deck over the water: I was on top at 5,000 feet and the targets were below. I didn’t know how thick the cloud cover was, but assumed it went down pretty close to the surface.

With a good radar lock on the Phantoms at 30NM, I started a gradual descent into the weather, keeping one eye on the altimeter and vertical velocity indicator and one on the radar. At 10 miles and 2,000 feet I was still on instruments, holding a right bank of 30 degrees in a wide curving intercept meant to put me behind the Phantoms a mile or two back, when the radar broke lock. I took my eye off the altimeter and VVI for what I thought was just a second while I reacquired the targets on radar. Suddenly, I felt my hair standing up.

I instinctively rolled wings level and began to pull. I bottomed out of the clouds just above the water, looking up at the Phantoms at my right two o’clock, and I swear for an instant also looking up at whitecaps (ocean waves). I was back in the clouds in a second, climbing away. I knocked off the intercept and flew home to Soesterberg. My G-meter read 9 Gs, and I realised that if I’d pulled less than that I’d have been a dead man. It was a lesson I never forgot.”

What were the 10 best fighters in 1985? Answer here.

Public specifications put the F-15’s top speed at Mach 2.5- can it really get there?

“I was the squadron functional check flight pilot at two of my bases, Soesterberg and Elmendorf. FCFs are flown clean, without external stores, and part of every FCF is acceleration to max speed at high (plus or minus FL400) altitude. I once got a fairly new F-15C up to Mach 2.21 on an FCF over the North Sea. This was a completely clean jet … they’d even taken the pylons off … but 2.21 was all she wrote, and I’ve never had one faster than that. Dirty, which is to say in normal training or combat configuration, I doubt anyone has gotten an Eagle much over Mach 1.8 in level flight.”

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Paul with with his wife, daughter and F-15 in 1983.

What upgrades or extra kit did F-15 pilots want on the aircraft? 

“When I started flying the Eagle in 1978 we didn’t yet have the all-aspect AIM-9L Sidewinder IR missile, which was still in development. Our only forward-firing weapon was the AIM-7F Sparrow, which was a somewhat unreliable weapon. When we got the AIM-9L and the improved AIM-7M, the Eagle became a true all-aspect threat, and things only got better when the AMRAAM came along. The F-15C was a great improvement with its programmable radar, but it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the aircraft finally got a chaff and flare dispenser, something it should have had all along. In the early days Bay 5 (the large area behind the pilot’s seat) was empty; by the early 1980s it was filled with electronic countermeasures gear. Since I never flew in combat I can’t tell you how well the Eagle’s ECM suite works. Nor was I still flying the jet when data link capability was added, but from what I hear it has greatly improved pilot situational awareness, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to fly with it before I retired.”

Was the radar reliable? Was it a good radar? 

“Not at first. In 1978 F-15 avionics were still new and unperfected. We field-tested a lot of the early problems at Soesterberg, and when Reagan became president and money started flowing again, those early radar problems were fixed. By the time I left Soesterberg the radar was working as advertised. By the time I got to Kadena several years later, improvements like track-while-scan had been made and the radar was even better. A flight of four Eagles could sort and individually target four F-16s or F/A-18s flying in formation at 30+ NM. It was incredible. New digital array radars, part of the multi-stage improvement program (MSIP), came just after I left Kadena and I never had the opportunity to fly with one. Friends tell me the current radar is absolutely eye-watering.”

The F-5 was a very tough opponent. It had a decent radar. It could go fast, turn like a bat while keeping its energy up, and was hard to see in a visual fight because it was so small. If MiG-21s were half as good as F-5s, we’d have had our hands full had the Warsaw Pact ever moved on NATO.”

What was the most challenging aircraft you ever flew against in training – and what happened?

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“The F-5E Tiger once flown by USAF Aggressor squadrons. During my tour with the 32nd TFS in the Netherlands (1979 to 1982), we deployed to Decimomannu AB several times to fly dissimilar air combat missions with other USAFE and NATO units. These missions were flown on the Decimomannu Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumented (ACMI) range located just off the coast of Sardinia.

On one deployment in 1980 our opponents were pilots of the 527th Aggressor Squadron, based at RAF Alconbury in the UK, flying F-5E Tigers. I was scheduled to fly a 2 v 4 mission against the Aggressors but lead’s jet crapped out after engine start and there was no spare available. After a quick radio consultation with squadron ops, I was cleared to go out alone … to fight off four highly-skilled air-to-air pilots trained in Russian tactics, flying an aircraft chosen because its performance characteristics were close to that of the MiG-21.

The Empire’s Ironclad: Flying & Fighting in the B-52 here

I remembered the one thing my 32nd TFS flight leads had always tried to impress on me: when outnumbered, fly straight lines and hooks, and keep your energy up at all times. I was nervous as hell, a young guy who still had so much to learn about air-to-air flying, facing off against four F-5Es, so when I entered the south edge of the ACMI circle I was up at 45,000 feet and supersonic. I stayed fast for the next 20 minutes, darting into the Aggressors in a dive, escaping in an even steeper dive, only turning when I had sufficient distance to come back at them, pulling 7 to 7.5 Gs every time I did turn, and somehow I didn’t get killed, while managing to get two valid shots off against them. During debrief, I was pretty proud when the Aggressor flight lead told me I’d done well. Thankfully, he didn’t call me Grasshopper.

Since ACMI missions are instrumented and projected on big screens in real time, I knew all my bros were in the ACMI trailer watching me as I flew, and that only added to the pressure. But I did good, and straight lines and hooks was my mantra from then on, a lesson I in turn drummed into younger pilots.

The F-5 was a very tough opponent. It had a decent radar. It could go fast, turn like a bat while keeping its energy up, and was hard to see in a visual fight because it was so small. If MiG-21s were half as good as F-5s, we’d have had our hands full had the Warsaw Pact ever moved on NATO.

A thing people who haven’t done it don’t know about BFM is how physically demanding it is. It’s like doing a round with a heavyweight boxer … at 7 Gs a 200-pound pilot weighs 1,400 pounds, at 9 Gs 1,800 pounds, and you’ll do it over and over each engagement.”

What was your most memorable mission and why? 

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“In 1984, and I’m sure it’s still true today, we monitored Soviet air and sea activity with classified intelligence assets based in Alaska. I was never privy to the how and why, but we knew the Russians were starting to base Bear H aircraft in Siberia. The Bear-H, which had just begun to roll off the production line in the early 1980s, was said to be the platform for a new nuclear-tipped cruise missile.

We sat air defense alert at two remote sites in Alaska, Galena Air Station on the Yukon River, and King Salmon Airport near Bristol Bay. There were two fully loaded F-15s and two pilots on 5-minute alert at each location. I was flight lead and alert force commander at Galena, three days into a week-long alert tour, when we got a call on the hotline to suit up and be ready for a real world (i.e., not practice) scramble. This only happened when intel was monitoring activity at the Soviet air bases in the Far East Region, so we knew something was up.

Ten minutes later the horn went off and we scrambled. As soon as we were airborne we were vectored north. To my surprise, we were directed to join with a KC-135 tanker on a track up by Point Barrow, a tanker that obviously had been scrambled earlier, just for us. Also to my surprise, we weren’t under the control of ground radar units … an AWACs was in the air, again just for us. Clearly, something really big was up, and it had been underway for some time before we were scrambled.

After we refueled, AWACS vectored us north again. Well above the Arctic Circle and north of the Alaskan landmass, I picked up far-distant contrails moving east to west. At the same time our own radars began painting a target over 80 miles north of our position. We could tell from the contrails there were two aircraft, and pretty soon the radar began to break out two separate targets flying loose formation.

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I was never briefed on the details, but I think what had happened was that two Bear bombers had launched from Anadyr earlier in the day, flown north over the Pole to an area near Iceland, then turned back over the Pole toward home on what was at least an eight-hour mission. We were intercepting them on their homeward leg. They hadn’t penetrated the Alaskan ADIZ (air defense identification zone), but were paralleling it to the north. Based on our dedicated tanker and AWACS, I believe Alaskan Air Command and NORAD must have anticipated that at least one of the aircraft was a Bear H.

Sure enough, our targets gradually resolved into two large swept-wing aircraft, soon visually ID’d as Bears. When we got up alongside, one was old and grimy, probably a Bear C, but the second one looked brand new, with a pipe-like conduit running the length of the fuselage. That was what we’d been told to look for on the new Bear H.

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As lead, I instructed two to fly a mile or so behind the Bears while I went in for photos. After I used up my roll of film I took his place in trail while he closed in for more photos. After some time, AWACs told us to break off and head south. We were so far away from Galena we had to refuel once more in order to make it home. The whole time I was thinking a person wouldn’t survive more than five minutes on the pack ice below, had either one of us been forced to eject.

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The Bears were feeling frisky that day. I was flying close enough that they could see me clearly, and every time I held up the camera, the pilot of whichever Bear I was next to would roll into me, forcing me to put the camera down and fly up out of his way. I could control my jet with my knees in level flight, but needed my hand on the stick to manoeuvre out of the Bear’s way. Another thing I won’t forget: you could hear the Bear’s engines and propellers from a good distance away. It must have been incredibly loud to the Bear’s crew, and they had to endure it for hours and hours. The Bear H didn’t have a side observation port, but the Bear C did, and I could see a crew-member waving to me from it. Sadly, he wasn’t holding a copy of a Russian girlie magazine, and the only thing he saw me holding was my big camera.

Bears (as well as Bisons and Badgers) had tail guns, but the Soviets never aimed them at intercepting aircraft. In neutral position, the tail guns pointed straight back and up, and we always watched them closely. If the gunner ever moved the guns, we knew to break away fast, as that was a signal he was about to fire, but I never heard of that happening during peacetime intercepts, which were (and are) routine in NATO, the north Atlantic, and north and west of Alaska.

I was told President Reagan was shown the photos two days later. Never got a thank you call, though.”

On landing back at Galena, a C-12 aircraft and crew were waiting for us. They flew away with our unexposed film and I was told President Reagan was shown the photos two days later. Never got a “thank you” call, though.

A ‘Bear’ would be an easy kill, though, and a single Sidewinder would probably be more than enough to bring one down. When we ran intercepts, with one aircraft closing in from the side for photos and the second aircraft covering from behind, the cover aircraft always had an IR missile trained on the targets, a flip of the master arm switch away from being fired. Just in case.”

 

mix_f15_su27-1 How would an F-15 fight a Su-27, and in a notional 1v1 how confident would you be as an F-15 pilot? 

“I can’t speak to the effectiveness and reliability of Su-27 missiles or its radar, but I will assume for now those systems are the equal of the F-15’s. I would fire at optimum range (AMRAAM or AIM-7) and immediately crank away in an f-pole manoeuvre designed to give my missile the shortest and straightest flight path to the target while making his missile fly farther in order to get to me. I would try very hard to take the ‘Flanker’ out beyond visual range, and for sure before the merge by following up with high-aspect IR missile shots as soon as I was in range. Chaff, flares, and other measures to reduce my own radar and IR signature, you bet … I’d be doing them all. If I did merge with a ‘Flanker’, I’d fly good BFM (basic fighter manoeuvres). Our pilots are better trained than theirs, and that should give us the advantage in a dogfight … but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about dogfighting it’s that it’s a great equaliser, and only one of you is coming out alive. I have a lot of respect for the Su-27, from all I’ve heard about it.

What was the most exciting training exercise you went on and why? 

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“Me taxiing in at Kadena AB after returning from a deployment to RAAF Darwin, 1991”

“My favourite was a three-week deployment from Kadena to RAAF Darwin for a combined RAAF/USAF exercise called Pitch Black, mainly because Australia and the Australians are so much fun. Weapons System Evaluation Program deployments to Eglin AFB in Florida were always great, because we got to live-fire AIM-7s and AIM-9s at Firebee drones and full-scale QF-102 targets. The best and most important training, though, was always Red Flag at Nellis AFB, where, operating with allied and US forces we fought full-scale air battles against trained adversaries, life-like targets, and air defence systems designed to simulate those used by potential enemy nations. Much of Red Flag is classified, but I think I’m allowed to say I learned a lot about some of the MiGs I’d likely see in combat, and the tactics their pilots would use.”

How would you fight the modern agile fighters in within-visual range combat (without AMRAAM or Sparrows)? 

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“Tough question because today, even in the visual arena, everyone has all-aspect short range IR missiles, and as far as I know they’re all damn good. In the early days of the F-15, F-4 squadrons didn’t want to fight with us in training unless we agreed not to use our BVR AIM-7s, and not take AIM-9 shots against them unless we were behind their wing line. I think that’s the question you’re asking here: how would we dogfight with aircraft similar to the F-15 if we couldn’t take them out prior to the merge. I’ve flown BFM with F-16s and F/A-18s. In my experience, the best way to dogfight them is to merge unobserved with lots of energy. The best way to do that is to come in super high and supersonic … even if they know you’re coming in high and fast, they rarely look high enough, and if you’re supersonic they’re looking for you where you were a few seconds ago, not where you are now, so you’re split-S’ing down on them from above before they even see you.”

How would you describe the F-15 in three words?

“Powerful, solid, smooth.”

What do you think of the programmes to develop a next-generation fighter to replace the F-22?

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“I can’t speak to that other than to say I don’t see manned fighters going away, and that at some point we’ll have to field new ones. As for the F-22, on the whole I wish we’d have built more of them, but the current fleet, augmented with the 200+ F-15Cs still in service, meets current air superiority needs. I’m a proponent of replacing the F-15C with new F-15SAs when the Cs retire. The two-seat F-15SA Strike Eagle variant, purchased by Saudi Arabia, is currently in production, and Boeing is trying to gin up interest in an even more advanced variant, the Silent Eagle. Buying either of these for the USAF would be a great way to augment the F-22. But that’s just me … there are probably some on the Air Staff who think the same way, but they have to be very careful how they say it lest it be taken as a threat to the F-35 programme.”

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How well trained were your generation of F-15 pilots? 

“We trained constantly, flying three to four days a week at minimum, on some days flying two or even three missions back to back. We flew a lot of dissimilar missions against allied aircraft (RAF Jaguars, German F-4s and F-104s, occasionally Tornados), not to mention USAF, USN, and USMC units flying Phantoms, Skyhawks, Tomcats, Vipers, and Hornets. Unless the kids today are getting as much flying time as we did, I would say fighter pilots of my generation, late 1970s to the mid-1990s, were the best-trained pilots ever.”

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Was the FX concept that led to the development of the F-15 the right idea?

“I was still in undergraduate pilot training during the great debate over the F-15, which led to the lightweight fighter competition between the YF-16 and YF-17. Here’s what I remember about the debate (which was over by the time I earned my wings and started a three-year tour as a T-37 instructor pilot).

Read about the F-15 that never was: The NA-335 here.

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Opponents of the F-15 had argued it was too big, too expensive, and (curiously) too capable, and that we’d be better off spending our money on a large fleet of low-cost F-5s. The F-15 had powerful defenders. It was never not going to go into production, but thanks to the lightweight fighter competition we wound up with a smaller fighter to supplement it, the F-16, which in my opinion was needed in any case to replace the F-4 Phantom II. When all was said and done the F-16 turned out to be expensive too.

The untold story of Britain’s F-16 here.

You can tell who won the debate by the fact that the USAF, from the very beginning to the present day, has kept the F-15 in the air-to-air role it was designed for, while assigning the F-16 primarily to air-to-ground roles.

By the way, I hear echoes of this old fight in the constant criticism and fault-finding with the F-35. This project isn’t going away either, and as with early F-15 problems, money will be thrown at the F-35 and I’m confident it’s going to be a great jet.”

I’ve heard when the F-15 entered service it was inferior in some ways to the fully matured F-106, would you agree? 

“I never heard that. The F-106 carried different missiles, and I’m pretty sure they were inferior to the AIM-7s and AIM-9s we carried on the F-15. At some late point in its life the 106 finally got a gun, but it occupied the part of the weapons bay that used to house the Genie nuclear-tipped rocket, so they gave up one capability to gain another. Also, if I remember correctly, not that many ‘106s ever got the gun mod. I don’t think you’ll find any F-15 pilots who would agree that the Eagle was in any way inferior to the F-106 (and I knew a lot of former ‘106 pilots who transitioned into the F-15).

The Eagle remains the most lethal air-to-air fighter ever fielded, with a combat record of 104 kills and no losses. Some day the F-22 may be able to make a similar claim, but it’s going to have to score some combat kills first. As I said in an earlier post written for my blog, I don’t think there’s a potential enemy air force in the world that won’t have second thoughts about engaging a four-ship wall of Eagles headed its way, knowing the capabilities of our radars and missiles.”

  

Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford, Lt Col, USAF (Ret): Personal history 

  • 1974: Student, undergraduate pilot training, Vance AFB, Oklahoma
  • 1975-1978: T-37 instructor pilot, 8th FTS, Vance AFB, Oklahoma
  • 1978: F-15 RTU: 555th TFS Triple Nickel, Luke AFB, Arizona
  • 1979-1982: F-15 pilot, 32nd TFS Wolfhounds, Soesterberg AB, the Netherlands
  • 1982-1985: F-15 pilot, 43rd TFS Hornets, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska
  • 1986-1988: Staff tour, US Special Operations Command, MacDill AFB, Florida
  • 1988-1992: F-15 pilot, 44th TFS Vampires, Kadena AB, Japan
  • 1992-1995: Chief of flight safety, HQ Pacific Air Forces, Hickam AFB, Hawaii
  • 1995-1997: Staff tour, 99th Range Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nevada

 

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Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

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6 comments

  1. Kas Grigonis

    Excellent, no bullshit interview. An honest peek behind the propaganda wall that dispels oft touted fanboy myths. A great read and a reminder of the reality of fielding a response to a potentially overwhelming threat, making both those you threaten and defend believe it can do what it can’t, while having to take the time to develop it into something that might.

  2. myplane150

    Would love to read a comparable article with a current Eagle Driver comparing the two generations. BTW, one or two subtle ads wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Nothing flashing or too big. Donated 20 bucks. Keep up the great work.

  3. Pingback: Air-Minded: F-15 Pilot Reveals All | Paul's Thing
  4. mercurialautumn

    I’m 100% with myplane150. If you need ads to keep the site alive, please do it. It’s not worth losing such a gem if ads might help even a bit 😦 I would donate but I am quite literally barely scraping by at the moment. Will definitely send you guys some of the funds you deserve when I’m able.

    Amazing article, btw. What an awesome guy!

  5. Pingback: The top fighter aircraft of 2017 (WVR combat) | Hush-Kit

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