Much was made of the F-15 Eagle’s prowess as an air-to-air fighter, but — at least initially — much of the `trade’ or competition would come from the other `teen’ series of US fighters, at least until the Israeli Air Force blooded the F-15A in 1979.
But, as explained by Bertie Simmonds in his book F-15 Eagle, on entry into USAF service questions were being asked — both in The Pentagon, and out in the wings and on the carriers themselves: could the F-15 be bested by a Grumman F-14A Tomcat? Was the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon the Best dogfighter ever? Or was McDonnell Douglas’ own F/A-1 8 Hornet — with its accent on the high-alpha dogfight — the machine to beat?
Of course, inter-service rivalry accounted for a lot in the early days: F-14 with its ‘million dollars a shot’ AIM-54 Phoenix long-range missiles versus the F-15 and its recalcitrant Sparrows?
The answer — of course — is that the best pilot or crew often wins and, sometimes, you’d find a good F-4E driver and his Whizzo taking down a new Eagle pilot on exercise. The Eagle versus Tomcat was an interesting one but it’s interesting to hear stories from ‘the other side’. This one illustrates experience over youth … Dave ‘Bio’ Baranek is legendary (now retired) F-14 RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) TOPGUN instructor and keen photographer. He recalls in the book Grumman F-14 Tomcat: Bye – Bye Baby…!: Images & Reminiscences From 35 Years of Active Service: “Some days everything falls together. We’re on a Key West detachment and we’re tasked with flying some four versus four with F-15s out of Tyndall. They’re up in the Florida panhandle, so we’re in the areas over the Gulf of Mexico. They’re students … we figure we’ll give them a lesson.
“So, after the phone brief, we get off early and fly low, right up the middle of Florida instead of going north over the water. They’re all scanning south and we come at them low from their nine o’clock. We shoot them all with Sparrows before they know we are there, then, we pull into them and kill them again with Sidewinders. These guys had an instructor in the back of the two-seaters who said he saw us. I’m not so sure, but that’s okay. The AIM-54 Phoenix wasn’t in the rules, but for the hell of it we shot them all down from somewhere over Disney World: our radar was just perfect.”
Another classic Cat versus Eagle story comes from the many such legends from Joe ‘Hoser’ Satrapa. As a kid he was good with a rifle, then when flying the F-8 Crusader his instructor saw how he just ‘hosed’ or sprayed bullets at the towed target and proclaimed, “We’ve got a hoser, here.” As usual, in the fighter community, the nickname stuck.
By the time Hoser was in the F-14 Tomcat community he was the stuff of legend. During his notable gunnery debriefs, he would show a slide where the pipper of an F-14 was over the centre of the F-15 Eagle’s huge wing. He’d ask the students: “What’s wrong with this picture?” It looked good to them … Hoser would answer: “The pipper isn’t the GODDAMN CANOPY! No kill like a guns’ kill! Pull on the pole until the rivets pop and the RIO pukes!” Rumour was that, such was his finesse with the big Tomcat during gunnery and his performance against the F-15 Eagle, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force almost switched to F-14s rather than the planned F-15 purchase.
And then there’s this account of an F-15C versus a brace of Canadian Hornets. The CF-188s (the Hornet name isn’t officially recognised in Canada) uses extra equipment, such as a spotlight in the left-hand side of the forward fuselage to identity intruders at night and a fake cockpit painted under the forward fuselage.
Now, this wasn’t new. It had been seen on F-4J/S Phantoms painted by noted aviation artist Keith Ferris. He got together with a number of pilots — including noted TOPGUN instructor C. J. ‘Heater’ Heatley to come up with disruptive camouflage patterns which would help during close-in dogfighting. One aspect of this was the `false canopy’ painted under the forward fuselage to fool a pilot into knowing which attitude and direction the opposing fighter was at or going in. Some F-4s used this gimmick and all Canadian Hornets do — as do some Fairchild Republic A-10A/C Thunderbolt IIs.
F-15s stationed in West Germany before the end of the Cold War would learn to appreciate the `false canopy’ as they would often find themselves taking part in DACT against any NATO elements in the area — and that included the Canadian Hornets then based at Baden-Soellingen.
F-15C pilot Robert `Scout’ Winebrenner was part of the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in Soesterberg, Holland, and he recalls how useful the fake canopy was during a joint mission with a CF-188 flown by Captain Greg ‘Claw’ Morris.
Winebrenner recalls: After checking the applicable national regulations, we determined that it was not allowed to fly dissimilar close formation. But there were no prohibitions on dissimilar tactical Formations. So, we found the best weather on Low Fly Area (LFA) 7 in southern Germany, and briefed up a low-altitude VFR ingress through France at slower speed to save fuel, intercepts on target of opportunity in LFA7, and a high-altitude recovery to individual instrument approaches at Florennes.”
When they reached the low-fly area, other aircraft were using the zone and both the F-15C and the CF-188 flew several engagements against Phantoms, F-16s and some Tornados. Both the F-15 and F/A-18/CF-188 and their pilots worked well together — but soon Winebrenner realised his ‘flying tennis court’ was easier to spot than the smaller F-18 Hornet.
He realised that at ‘the merge’ the bogeys would react to the bigger F-15 and then the enemy formation would begin looking for the `second Eagle’ — leaving Morris able to take plenty of close-range missile and gun shots.
This play-through was the same when another pair of Canadian Hornets showed up. They didn’t spot Morris in his Hornet and — instead went two versus one against what they thought was Winebrenner’s lone F-15. Laughing, Morris quickly communicated to his compatriots to check their six, as Winebrenner recalls: “Hey, what are YOU doing back there? I’m with the F-15! Fox 2 on both of you!”
Winebrenner retired in 2005 after 26 years in the USAF and he says: “Now my only exposure to the Hornet is watching the US Navy Blue Angels practise over my home in Pensacola. I did note disappointedly that they don’t have the fake canopy!”
F-15 Eagle is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force
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