Military Aviation

Former USAF Pilot who Classified First in his UPT Class Explains why He Chose to Fly the T-39A Sabreliner Business Jet instead of the F-15 Eagle Fighter Jet

I spotted a very cool [T-39A Sabreliner] business jet on the Webb Air Force Base ramp one day, painted up for the U.S. Air Force. I raced over to base ops and met the crew.

Would you rather be a C-130 Hercules or an F-15 Eagle pilot and why?

‘I was the first USAF pilot to face that direct question about the F-15, though my other options were not limited to a C-130,’ Ron Wagner, former USAF Pilot, recalls on Quora.

‘I was first in my USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) class in October 1974 and we were thinking about our upcoming assignment selections. With the exception of a single year—the year I got my wings—the USAF sent a list of aircraft to each class and then the class chose from that fixed list, whatever came down to them, and it varied quite a bit from class to class. #1 got first choice from the list, on down to the B-52 to Minot that went by default to the bottom slot.

‘However!

‘During this one magical year, the USAF experimented with a system that allowed the #1 graduate to pick any aircraft in the USAF inventory for which they were qualified. (We could not select an SR-71, for example, which required a certain number of hours of flight experience.)

‘In other words, #1 got anything they wanted and then the block that went to the rest of the class was short by one.

F-15 INITIAL CADRE

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‘When the F-15 entered USAF service, all of the pilots were experienced fighter pilots who built up what the USAF calls an “initial cadre” before letting slots in the new aircraft go to brand new pilots fresh out of UPT.

‘I got a note to go see the wing commander in his office, where he very proudly informed me that the F-15 had just completed “initial cadre” and that if I selected an F-15, I would be the first to go from UPT directly into it.

‘He was excited. He expected me to be excited.

‘I was honored.

‘And I gave it some serious thought because—well, damn, I question the wings on the chest of any USAF ‘pilot who does not want to FLY an F-15.

‘Any pilot, actually! It’s a hell of an airplane!

‘Flying one would be absolutely fabulous and I loved wringing out everything the T-38 could do and the instructors knew I did. They figured I’d love the F-15. I would have.

‘However, all military flying assignments come with a lifestyle.

‘I had spent a year surrounded by fighter pilots, including a really swaggering, mouthy captain who had been an F-4 back-seater in Vietnam. He had a MiG kill to his credit, which earned him a slot to UPT to move to the front seat. A year listening to him made me sure I did not want the lifestyle.

BAD NEWS FOR MY WING COMMANDER

‘Unfortunately for the hopeful colonel, two “coincidences” had happened to me in the previous couple of months.’

Wagner continues;

‘First, I had spotted a very cool [T-39A Sabreliner] business jet on the Webb Air Force Base ramp one day, painted up for the U.S. Air Force. I raced over to base ops and met the crew. They were NOT wearing the green-bag flight suits, but were sharply dressed in regular uniforms, and wearing Air Force flight jackets. That combination was prohibited!

‘But it turns out that crews at Andrews Air Force Base—here in Washington, D.C.—are authorized to wear the combo, and it looked sharp. Those guys had flown Texas Senator John Tower to my Texas base, and they let me go out to their jet.

‘I about peed myself sitting in the cockpit. I thought, “I want to fly these.”

‘Second, about two weeks later, a guy in the class ahead of me took one of those assignments to Andrews Air Force Base and I thought, “Holy S**t, that’s a good idea.” It turned out, he had gone to see that jet the same day I did and came to the same conclusion.

‘So, at that point, the colonel’s dreams were “toast” before I got to his office.

‘At that point, now knowing I was Numero Uno, I took the cool bizjet to Andrews Air Force Base. The guy who had been the aircraft commander on the jet that inspired me was soon my instructor pilot, checking me out in the same jet. Thank you, Captain Devore.

LIFESTYLE CHOICE

‘I sure would have loved to have flown an F-15, but, damn, did I have fun flying at Andrews! During my flying career I met and flew seven U.S. presidents, three first ladies, and countless ambassadors, generals, admirals, astronauts, Senators, Reps, and many famous heroes. Back in those days the USAF had 93 U.S. bases and I landed at every single one of them. I saw and did cool things!

‘As cool as flying an F-15?

‘In the opinions of a lot of people, no way. ‘But in my opinion, with lifestyle factored in: Hell yes!

MUSEUM PIECES

‘If you’re ever near Dayton, Ohio, stop by the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and say “Hi” to an old friend of mine. The museum has a section called the Presidential Gallery because it houses aircraft that carried Presidents of the United States. This one, [T-39A Sabreliner] 62–4478, was nicknamed “Queenie” and is in my logbook.

‘The Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona also wanted one of our jets and they got [T-39A Sabreliner] 62-4449, which is also in my logbook, with another Andrews bird parked on the other side of it.

CAN’T DO THIS IN AN F-15

‘I looked up 4449 in my logbook and remembered I flew it on a memorable mission. Back then, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN was Andrew Young and Carter was POTUS. Mr. Young had a flare for saying things that irked the POTUS. When he spouted out something that Carter had to “correct,” Carter would dispatch the Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, to “straighten him out.”

‘I did that twice!

‘But the first time happened to be in 4449. I remember opening that side door with Cyrus Vance at my left shoulder and peering down at Ambassador Young when Vance, with a smiling smirk, said, “Hello, Andy.”

‘And “Andy” chuckled back as he said, “Hello, Cyrus.”

‘Clearly, it was going to be quite an ass chewing! LOL! NOT!’

Wagner concludes;

‘The point of the mission was for President Carter to save face by having the network TV cameras capture the arrival so that the White House press briefer could say that President Carter sent Cyrus Vance to NYC to straighten out that wild and crazy Andrew Young.

‘They had a nice dinner and I took Secretary Vance home that evening.

‘You don’t get missions like that in F-15s.’

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

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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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