Aviation History

End of an Era: last 493rd Fighter Squadron commander of the Eagle era recalls the last years of the Mighty F-15C at RAF Lakenheath

In 2022, the Grim Reapers transition to the F-35A Lightning II, closing the chapter of the F -15C Eagle in the history of the 493rd Fighter Squadron. However, the Eagle certainly did not leave Europe by quietly fading into the background.

The following story titled END OF AN ERA by LIEUTENANT COLONEL TODD “BUDDHA” PEARSON COMMANDER 493rd FS 2021-2022 appears in Patrick Van Dam’s book Mission Ready.

The Grim Reapers have a rich history operating the F-15C in Europe and across the globe. I am humbled to have the privilege to serve as the last Grim Reaper commander of the Eagle era. The last few years have seen dramatic changes across the European AOR (Area of Responsibility): global pandemics, armed conflict, and a resurgence of a Cold War adversary. Through it all, the Reapers have kept pace and been on the front lines, ready to fly, fight and win. The squadron has deployed across Europe, Africa, the Arctic Circle, and the Middle East. We’ve responded to events in Eastern Europe, integrated with NATO and partner air forces, conducted air policing missions, and took the Eagle to war for the first time in 18 years.

No story of the Grim Reapers would be complete without first bragging about the Grim Reaper Eagle Keepers. If the key to air superiority is flexibility, then the key to flexibility is the Aircraft Maintenance Unit. The AMU is the behind-the-scenes all-star sortie generation machine that has kept the Reapers at the tip of the spear. Without this team of dedicated, professional Eagle Keepers, the story of the Grim Reapers would be vastly different. The fantastic synergy between the Ops and Maintenance team, often referred to as the Gold Team, is a testament to its people and their dedication to the mission. We’ve coined the phrase ‘It’s good to be Gold,’ and we mean it!

In 2022, the Grim Reapers transition to the F-35A Lightning II, closing the chapter of the F -15C Eagle in the history of the 493rd Fighter Squadron. However, the Eagle certainly did not leave Europe by quietly fading into the background. 2018 saw the squadron deploy to Aviano AB, Italy, in support of Operation Steadfast Protector. Within 36 hours of arriving in Italy, the Reapers were conducting Offensive Counter-Air (OCA) and Defensive Counter-Air (DCA) missions in support of a large-scale coalition airstrike in Syria. In early 2019, the squadron was again called to rapidly deploy to the Middle East to an undisclosed location in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (later Deliberate Resolve). This deployment combined complicated rules of engagement with compressed time to assess the situation and make decisions. However, Reaper pilots were always in the proper position to engage and/or prevent an escalation of the conflict. During this deployment, the Reapers were rapidly redeployed within the theater as part of Operation Spartan Shield. This pivot directly responded to Iranian aggression in the Arabian Gulf and increased tensions in the region. At the height of the tensions, the Reapers provided DCA for US Navy assets conducting recovery operations for an RQ-4 that was shot down in international airspace. Together with joint US forces and coalition partners, the Reapers would continue to provide air dominance until relieved in place in July 2019 and returning to RAF Lakenheath.

On Jun. 15, 2020, we lost 1st Lt. Kenneth “Kage” Allen in a training accident in the North Sea. He was part of a 4-ship in a DCA scenario. I was flying as a member of the opposing forces, serving as a training aid. If you’re in this business long enough, you will probably lose a few friends along the way. This is certainly true for me, but this was the first (and hopefully only) time I was flying when one of our guys didn’t come home. Losing Kage hurt. His loss was felt far and wide, well beyond the walls of the 493rd Fighter Squadron. However, in the tragedy, we found strength and resilience. As with all the Reapers we have lost along the way, losing Kage reminds us that flying fighters is an unforgiving business and that the freedoms we hold dear are not free.

In February 2022, well into the F-15C drawdown, the Grim Reaper Eagles were called forward one last time, this time de, playing to Lask Air Base in Poland as part of Operation Atlas Guardian in response to Russia’s imminent hostilities in Ukraine. Like most conflicts over the last few decades, Eagles were once again the first combat aircraft into theater, and were immediately ready to provide around-the-clock DCA of NATO’s Western flank. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Grim Reapers manned Combat Air Patrols for nearly 48 hours continuously. With only a small number of squadron aircraft and personnel, this was a remarkable feat, and a testament to the legacy of the Grim Reaper Ops and Maintenance team. With the final deployment of the Grim Reaper F-15Cs, the history of the Eagle in Europe had come full circle. The Eagle was brought to Europe in 1977 to deter Russian/Soviet aggression against the West, and that’s exactly what it did all the way until the end of its service in Europe.

The Eagle leaves a proud legacy for the Lightning to follow. The Grim Reapers are the last USAF squadron to down an enemy fighter in aerial combat. They are 6-time winners of the coveted Raytheon Trophy, which is awarded annually to the Top Air Dominance Squadron in the U.S. Air Force. This legacy has been built on the backs of countless Grim Reapers (ops, maintenance, and support) since the squadron moved to RAF Lakenheath in 1994, and the Grim Reapers have carried the legacy of air superiority from the Eagle squadrons of Bitburg, Soesterberg, and Spangdahlem since 1977 when the type arrived in theater. We take the Air Superiority mission dead serious, have enormous pride in the Eagle’s 104 to 0 air-to-air kill ratio, and the fact that no enemy ordnance has fallen on friendly troops from aircraft since the Korean War. The core of the Eagle legacy has always been the development of the fighter pilot and a complete understanding of the air-to-air combat arena. This legacy is being passed to the Grim Reaper Lightning Drivers as I write this, and I’m confident that the future of the Grim Reapers is bright. The modern battlefield is rapidly evolving and more technologically complex and lethal than ever. The human fighter pilot will ultimately make the difference in the high-end fight of the future, and when called, the Grim Reapers will be mission-ready and prevail, no question!

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-15C Eagle 36th TFW, 22d TFS, BT/79-051 / 1981

Mission Ready is available to order here.

Mission Ready is not your everyday aviation book. It’s an art book with cool design details. Like the protective slipcase and embossed text on the linnen cover.

It’s a combination of photo journalism and more aesthetic images. Several prominent Reapers, Like Gulf War veteran and MiG Killer “Rico” Rodriguez have contributed their essays.

Some facts:

  • 23x30cm
  • 232 pages
  • 110 photos in FC and B/W
  • Hardcover clothbound with slipcase

There are two editions; the standard edition and the limited edition. The first 493 copies (aka limited edition) are hand signed and numbered.

Mission Ready has won 3 honourable mentions at the International Photography Awards. One for Documentary Books, one for Self Published Photo books and one for Portrait photography.

Photo credit: Patrick Van Dam

This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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