Flying & fighting in the F-15 Eagle: Interview with F-15C Eagle pilot


For forty four years potential foes have feared and respected the F-15 Eagle. An utterly uncompromised air superiority fighter of vast proportions, it has a combat record second to none. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Major Shari Williams (rtd) flew the F-15C, taking it to war in 2003. We spoke to her to find out more. 

What was the general opinion of the ‘Flanker’ in the F-15 community?
“The Su-27, and more so the Su-35, are formidable opponents.  The planes manoeuvrability/ power is on par with, and can often eclipse the F-15C.  As with most Russian equipment, they suffer in lack of situational awareness when approaching the merge, particularly in large force scenarios. So for an Eagle driver, you want to kill the Flanker before you merge with it, or merge with such an advantage that you can get a quick kill and move on.  You will not out run it, and it generally carries a lot of weapons and gas.  Typically the best of any countries pilots find themselves in the Su-27/35, and they are well trained and moderately experienced pilots. But with good teamwork and overall battle situational awareness (SA),  I would expect Eagles to do well, but not come out unscathed. At least that was my experience.”
And the F-16? “Ok, first, most answers in air combat are…’it depends’  It depends on skill, experience, recency of experience, are we fighting where it is optimal for one plane and not the other?
Assuming equal pilots (meaning both have the same air-air experienced and recency of experience), the F-16 is a more efficient turning plane.  it enjoys a slight advantage in sustained turn ability, where as the Eagle has a slight advantage in instantaneous turn ability.  The turn circles are almost identical.  Depending on configurations, the thrust-to-weight ratio is all pretty close to equal.”
So how did I fight an F-16? “First I always assumed the pilot was awesome.  Assuming we meet 180 degrees out with our speeds where we want them and no one with an angular advantage I would elect to take the fight single circle (the tactical scenario may not favour this is a full up air battle).  My goal is to get slow and use my ability to fly at higher AOA/slower speeds than the F-16 can. The F-16 has decent AOA capability, but the FBW(fly by wire) system is limited in speed of movement of the controls as it approaches its AOA limit.  The F-15 has no such limits.  In my experience I usually had more air-air experience (total and recency) than the vast majority of F-16 pilots and usually had little trouble neutralising and then killing them in close. Like all victories it comes down to flying your particular aircraft at the extremes and doing it more efficiently and precisely than the other pilot.  That being said, an F-16 can win a single circle fight if the adversary is not on their game, it can also lose a two- circle fight if they are not proficient at it.
Let me add this: air-air combat is incredibly fluid, it changes very fast.  So even though a F-16 may have a better sustained turn rate then an F-15C, if through my intercept I can achieve 30 or more degrees of lead turn, I will happily go two circle.  And that is the goal, to merge with an advantage, that way, any enemy advantage is minimised and maybe even negated and a quick kill follows.  That is the goal!

I did not answer your last question.  In my 2000+ hours in air combat training (just under 2000 on the F-15) I fought the Viper a lot, I have flown against many Weapon School grads, and average pilots. In most all cases, I did really well.  For any fighter pilot it is about controlling the fight and forcing the fight that favours your aircraft.  Because most F-16 units don’t do much air-air (A/T=Adversary Tactics folks being the exception), their experience, especially recency, was often spotty at best. So was I confident? Always.  Did I do well? Usually.  But everyone has bad days and good days. That is why there is no absolutes in air-air combat.”


What is the biggest myth about the F-15? “That it is unbeatable. It is not.  There are many planes that are more than its equal in manoeuvrability/power.  The advantage an Eagle usually has is greater SA and better training/experience.”
What is the best and worst thing about the F-15? “Size. Big means more gas and more missiles.  But being large means you can be easily seen and much more easily countered in a visual fight.”
How important is aircraft size? “It depends.  If the aircraft has not been found by sensors a small size is quite an advantage, it also makes it hard to see during visual manoeuvring. Size of an aircraft is a trade-off between gas, weapons and sensors (not quite as big of deal now) and ECM abilities. Example: many planes have internal ECM, they are typically the larger fighter. F-16’s carry a pod (which they can not jettison), and it is heavy and creates a lot of drag.  They never practice BFM with the pod, yet in combat they would have to do BFM with the pod.  That is why their training BFM is usually more sport than realistic combat-like.”

Major Shari Williams (rtd) “I was in the USAF from 90–05, Guard/Reserves 05-10  I retired as a Major.  44FS, 60th FS x 2, 335 FTS, 49th FTS.”

How many missiles do you think it would have taken to take down a Bear? “It depends on missile type and where they impact, also how long before the plane is destroyed.  If you can get an AIM-120 to impact around the wing root and light the fuel tanks on fire the plane will crash, it may take a few minutes but it will go down. If you need it down quicker you can follow it up with more missiles (same side of the plane would be best) or use the gun to try to induce a wing spar failure, flight control failure, kill the crew or hit the engines.”
Would it be hard for an F-15 to catch a Blackjack at high altitude and speed? “In a tail chase ..yes it would be very hard to catch.  Even if the Blackjack is aware and drags out at 30+ miles it would be hard to catch, of course if it is up high the missile range is increased. But if it turns away, the job is done!”
 What was it like fighting the Draken? “Only did it once.  Best analogy it was an underpowered MiG-21.  Good initial turn, lost energy quickly, they had trouble keeping sight during BFM.”
Did you ever fight DACT with a F-14, if so- what was it like?


“I have fought the Tomcat.  The first time I was genuinely concerned(I had seen TopGun), and I was relatively young in the Eagle.  It turned out to be a joke. They were really bad.  Later I fought them with the bigger GE motors, and they were better, but still just too big and heavy of a plane. Never a real issue to a competent Eagle pilot.”
How high would a F-15 get if it ignored normal ceiling limits? “It can get up there.  I had one up to 67K once.  Much than that and the engines get to be an issue and there is not all that much air for the controls.  I was only above 50K for a few minutes.  Got up there and came right back down. It was kinda uncomfortable to be up there.”
What was your most memorable mission and why? “Gosh, so many…”
Leading a 50 plane package into Iraq to strike targets
“The 50 plane package was made up of eight C model Eagles, eight E Model Eagles, six F-16CJ Weasels, ten A-6s, two EA-6s, twelve F-18s and a couple odds and ends.  C model Eagles were typically first in and last out.  We crossed the border, fanned out and set up CAP position between the enemy airfields and the target area.  The F-16CJs were close behind to keep and SAMs/radar AAA down in/around the target area. The strike package came in, hit their respective targets and once they were off target, we started working our way back out of country.  That night the enemy did not put up any planes, but did offer some SAMs and AAA.  Everyone made it back safe.”
First time we committed on MiGs.
“Committing on MiGs and being locked up by MiGs, or other enemy equipment was not common in Iraq, but it did happen. Now and again, I got to experience that.  The alert launch was an eye-opener, but was kinda fun, nothing big came of it, but it was something I will always remember.”
Cold launch off alert in the middle of a winter night in Korea
“We sat alert now and again at a FOL (Forward Operating location). The horn goes around midnight one cold winter night. We get to our jets, get them started and call for ‘words’.  Lead breaks and I press on my own (as we had briefed).  I take the runway and shove the throttles to full afterburner. In a few seconds I was climbing into the undercast 45 degrees nose high.  I had been awake for about six minutes. I get pretty disoriented, but finally catch up and head out to the point I was assigned. It seemed a couple MiGs were running on a C-130 listening to broadcasts, but they could not find him, so I never got all that close.  I RTB’d(returned to base), found my flight lead (who had jumped to a spare) and was heading my way.  I flew an approach to minimums on a snowy runway.  At this point I had maybe 300 hours of total time, and 100 hours in the Eagle.  I am lucky to have not screwed up something bad!”

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First time I was shot at by AAA/SAMs
“First time we were engaged by SAM/AAA was during OSW.  It happened as we trained for.  We received a ‘spike’, indicating the AAA radars had locked us up.  We were in the high 30’s and began random manoeuvres.  It was a dit disconcerting to see AAA explode where you were a few seconds ago.  But it was a great example of how our training works!”
Fighting two Marine F/A-18’s in a visual ACM fight
“My flight lead and I were doing a 2v2 against two Marine Hornets (F/A-18C).  On the last engagement, they asked to do a visual setup.  So we lined up line abreast of each other and checked away, got about 5 miles apart and turned in (post merge kills).  My flight lead turned the wrong way and the Hornets both quickly capitalised on it and killed him.  So it left me 2v1.  My only advantage was that they were in the same piece of sky, on the same side of my canopy, so I could essentially BFM both of them at once…until they gained separation.  They never did, and it cost them. I kept the fight tight, slowly working up my energy, and caught one Hornet extending a bit too long. I was able to take a minimum range face-shot as we merged, and called him dead, them pitched back into the remaining Hornet.  We got into a slow speed fight and got to the floor with me having a slight advantage.  A few seconds late I had enough separation to take a gun shot at the floor (harder than it sounds).  I really should of not had that success, but they did not press their advantage early on and as the fight matured I think they lacked the experience to force where it was going.  The 2v1 against Hornets was really no different than any other mission when where fought out numbered, it just stands out because it was a full blown visual setup and fight (2v2) when my flight lead turned the wrong way at the merge and was shot instantly.  I was left to fight two Hornets in a visual fight, a situation that should have favoured them, but on that day it did not.”
Nothing more than a few missions most long term Eagle drivers have experienced.  There are so many more that If I sat and thought about would come back to my recollection.   Led some missions for Desert Fox, and a few for a classified mission.
 My experiences are not all that different from any Eagle driver.”
Was the radar mature when you first flew the Eagle? “Yes, it was mature, but was constantly improved and updated with new software or ‘tapes’.  On average once every couple of years or so.”
What system would you most like to have been included on the Eagle? “A nice IRST (infrared search and track) would have been great.”

Which three words best describe the Eagle?

“Training, training and training.  That is for the community.  For the plane itself: Thrust.  Manoeuvrability. Situational Awareness.”
What should I have asked you? “Nice question.  No matter what I, or other fighter pilots write, one thing to remember…it always depends.  I have seen Eagles gunned by a Harrier, a T-38 and an A-4.  The plane is just a tool, the pilots skill with the tool is what matters most.  Building SA to arrive at the merge with more SA than the bandits usually determines the winner in a visual fight.  In canned BFM (basic fighter manoeuvres ) it is more about experience, being able to fly a more exact/precise plane and aircraft capability.”

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