Have any F-15 Eagles been lost in air-to-air combat? Rumours are that some have.
The F-15 Eagle is an all-weather, extremely maneuverable, tactical fighter designed to permit the US Air Force (USAF) to gain and maintain air supremacy over the battlefield.
The Eagle’s air superiority is achieved through a mixture of unprecedented maneuverability and acceleration, range, weapons and avionics.
A claim confirmed by the fact that the Eagle has an unmatched air-to-air kill ratio of 104 to 0.
The F-15’s superior maneuverability and acceleration are achieved through high engine thrust-to-weight ratio and low wing-loading. Low wing-loading (the ratio of aircraft weight to its wing area) is a vital factor in maneuverability and, combined with the high thrust-to-weight ratio, enables the aircraft to turn tightly without losing airspeed.
Thanks to these unique characteristics for more than 40 years the mighty Eagle has defended the skies with a track record of success unlike any other fighter jet in the history of aviation.
It seems most claims cannot be backed up and — considering the PR it would generate — if one has been shot down, we would have proof, surely. Why? Consider the shootdown of Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko’s Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk on Mar. 27, 1999. The 250th Air Defence Missile Brigade of Yugoslavia, commanded by Colonel Zoltan Dani managed to do what many thought was impossible: shoot down a stealth fighter bomber. When they achieved the feat, the press generated from the resultant display of the wreckage was considerable. If there were any remains of an F-15 Eagle to be found as a result of an air-to-air engagement, surely we’d have seen it?
The first such claim against an F-15 unsurprisingly comes from the theatre of conflict where the Eagle itself claimed its first kill: the Middle East. It was claimed during 1978 that an Iraqi MiG-23 took down an Eagle. It was thought that a Flogger from 39 Squadron shot down an IAF F-15 in Iraqi airspace, but despite the claim being made many times over the intervening decade, no evidence or wreckage was produced.
In 1981, another alleged Eagle take-down was made in a like-for-like series of ambushes. In February of that year, the story goes that a pair of Israeli F-15 Eagles ambushed a pair of Syrian-flown MiG-25s and shot one down. A few months later, it’s alleged that the Syrians repaid the favour. In June 1981, they and Soviet sources claimed that MiG-25Ps of the SAF set up their own ambush, shooting down an IAF Eagle from beyond visual range with ripple-fired semi-active radar-homing medium-range missiles.
Once more, no evidence was produced at the time. Also, the Syrians apparently weren’t even flying MiG-25Ps at the time. But the plot does thicken: the Foxbat the Israelis shot down in February 1981 was a MiG-25R reconnaissance machine, flying over Lebanon as a single, while the Syrians claimed that the MiG-25P was a single when it shot down the Eagle in response. The Syrians’ version was that a MiG-25PD (equipped with an infrared search-and-track system, as well as chaff/flare dispensers and powerful Smerch A2 radar, and some electronic countermeasures equipment) played the part of a high-flying reconnaissance MiG-25 heading towards Beirut. Suddenly, two four-ships of IAF Eagles came up to intercept. The story then goes that the single MiG-25PD locked up his Smerch A2 radar and ripple-fired two AA-6 Acrid/R-40 long-range missiles —possibly following Soviet protocol and launching the semi-active radar-guided version (R-40RD) after an infrared version (R-40TD).
Allegedly, the range was something like 35 miles, which was way above that of the AIM-7F Sparrows which equipped the F-15s, but within the advertised range of the R-40 (31-50 miles). This begs the question as to what order were the Acrids fired in. Normally, Soviet engagements would see the IR missile go first, so it didn’t just follow the heat source from the SARH (semi-active radar homing) missile. Again — according to Syrian sources — the IAF F-15 crashed into the sea, north off the coast of Tyre, Lebanon. The Israeli pilot apparently ejected from his stricken Eagle. In the same combat, the IAF claimed to have shot down a MiG-25 Foxbat with an AIM-7.
A year later — in July 1982 — eight SAF MiG-21s took on a mixed formation of F-15s and IAI Kfirs over Beirut. The Syrians admitted to losing four of their own number but they did claim an F-15 Eagle too. Again, despite alleged eyewitness accounts, no evidence was given or wreckage found to confirm the kill.
Fast-forward nine years to Desert Storm and it was the first chance for USAF F-15 Eagle fighters to take on the likes of the Iraqi Air Force’s MiG-29s and MiG-25s. But first (once more) the Israelis were involved in another ‘alleged’ encounter. The Iraqi Air Force claimed that on the eve of Desert Storm — on Jan. 4, 1991 — a number of IAF aircraft intercepted a formation of Israeli Air Force F-15 Baz fighters and shot one down near their H-3 air base, in western Iraq. A former retired high-ranking Iraqi officer claimed that the kill was valid and that the aircraft crashed with such force that only a few recognisable parts were found at the crash site. These were sent to Baghdad for investigation and apparently taken by US forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
The next alleged claim was on Jan. 30, 1991, when two Iraqi Air Force MiG-25PDs were sent aloft to intercept what seemed to be a pair of USAF F-15Cs, which were on combat air patrol between the Iraqi capital and the Iranian border, in a bid to stop Iraqi Air Force machines flying to Iran. It’s thought that — initially — Iraqi GCI (ground-controlled intercept) sent the MiGs after a spurious radar return, against which one of the MiG-25s launched an R-40, but did not appear to hit a target.
The same pair of MiG-25s was then vectored to another ‘pair’ of USAF F-15Cs and an R-40RD was fired from between 10 and 15 miles away. At around the same time, one of the F-15Cs ripple-fired two AIM-7M Sparrows, which missed their intended target as the MiGs made a fast left-hand turn and headed north. In the meantime, the Iraqis say they saw an F-15C going down and felt that the R-40 had done enough damage to make the aircraft a confirmed ‘kill’.
The remaining Eagle is reported by the Iraqis as having fired no fewer than three more Sparrows, which failed, leaving the sole-surviving F-15C to bug out to the south, to avoid the two Foxbats. The Iraqis then claimed that the MiG-25s left the area and headed at high speed back to base, where they were nearly caught unawares by another pair of F-15Cs. The Iraqis say that three AIM-7Ms were fired at the two MiGs, with one impacting on the runway to the rear of one of the Foxbats as it ended its landing run.
Subsequently, the Iraqis who were tracking the targets, claim that one of the pair of F-15s from the earlier engagement was seen to slow down and disappear off radar somewhere in Saudi Arabia, leading to a probable kill, which was upgraded to a full kill when (allegedly) the wreckage of the aircraft was seen by a smuggler in northern Saudi Arabia. From US sources, no fighter ‘albino’ F-15C was shot down during Desert Storm or in the run-up to that campaign. The USAF did lose two F-15E Strike Eagles: one on the night of Jan. 17, 1991, and another two days later — but these were claimed to have been destroyed by Iraqi ground-to-air defence units. So, what’s the closest we’ve seen to an F-15 destroyed in combat? In fact, the MiG-25/R-40 combination did destroy a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C in the early hours of Jan. 17, flown by Michael Scott ‘Spike’ Speicher — although initially US Forces claimed it was a ground-to-air missile that destroyed his Hornet and not an R-40D fired by Captain Zuhair Dawoud of the 84th Squadron of the Iraqi Air Force. Speicher was killed in the engagement, although it took many years before his remains were repatriated to the US.
During what later became known as the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot, around 100 Israeli jets took on the same number of Syrian aircraft in one of the largest jet fighter-to-fighter battles ever fought.
During this battle on Jun. 9, 1982, a Syrian MiG-21 hit an F-15D Baz with an AA-8 Aphid (R-60) short-range infrared dogfight missile. The Eagle was badly hit, but it managed to limp back to base and was repaired.
Bizarrely there has been an F-15 defection. During Desert Shield — the build-up to Desert Storm — one Royal Saudi Air Force pilot defected to Sudan (then a country with ties to Iraq) with his F-15C. In early November 1990, the pilot — who was said to be unhappy at the prospect of fighting fellow Arabs — took off on a training mission only to set course for Sudan.
In the immediate aftermath it was rumoured that the US military in the Middle East were warning of a rogue F-15C that could be used in the area, but instead it was reported that the pilot was granted political asylum and the aircraft was returned to Saudi Arabia within hours, if not days. It was also rumoured that the Saudis may have made a considerable multimillion dollar ‘donation’ to the Sudanese government to aid in the Eagle’s swift return.
F-15 Eagle is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Boeing, CIA and Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikipedia