The F-15 Eagle is an all-weather fighter designed to gain and maintain air supremacy. As the first US fighter with engine thrust greater than its basic weight, the F-15 can accelerate while in a vertical climb.
As explained by Bertie Simmonds in his book F-15 Eagle, with the F-15’s phenomenal climb performance – and with US defence in the 1980s heading in a ‘Star Wars’ sort of direction – one of the strangest ideas was the use of the Eagle as a destroyer of spy satellites.
In the late 1970s the ASAT or Anti-Satellite mission was looked at, some years before the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) which was known as ‘Star Wars’. The F-15’s ASAT mission would take an F-15, loaded with a single Ling-Temco-Vought ASM-135 ASAT missile and launch it in a zoom climb to take out any offending satellite.
The missile itself was a three-stage guided weapon. The first stage utilised a Boeing AGM-69 short-range attack missile (SRAM) motor and Vought’s Aerospace Altair 3 rocket as the second stage. The third stage was the homing vehicle, which – using infrared – would target and intercept the satellite. Initially the ASM-135 ASAT was built without a warhead – as kinetic energy alone would do the job of destroying the satellite. The ASM-135 was around 18 feet long and weighed 2,700lb. The launch Eagle had to be fitted with a back-up battery for the ASAT weapon, a small computer system and datalink for guidance.
The first and only time a satellite was destroyed by an F-15 came on Sep. 13, 1985 when an F-15A Eagle (76-0084) nicknamed ‘Celestial Eagle’ piloted by Major General (then Major) Wilbert D. `Doug’ Pearson Junior took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and destroyed the Solwind P78-1 satellite, which the US had only launched some six years before, but was having issues with depleted batteries.
Pearson was an experienced ‘stick’, being a test pilot and having more than 4,000 flying hours in 50 different aircraft, including (later) the F-22 Raptor, T-38, Northrop F-20 Tigershark, F-4 and F-15, before his retirement in 2005. He also had more than 350 combat hours over Vietnam.
The F-15 was flying straight and level at around Mach 1.2 when Pearson pulled 76-0084 into a 4g zoom climb at an angle of 65°. At around 38,000 feet, with the aircraft’s speed decaying just below the speed of sound, the ASAT missile was launched automatically. At 1.42 p.m., the third stage of the ASAT missile hit the Solwind P78-1 satellite at an altitude of 345 miles, 200 miles west of Vandenberg AFB and at a speed of more than 13,000mph. The satellite was completely destroyed.
Despite this success, the adoption of the ASAT role for the F-15 (it was thought that the 48th Fighter Intercept Squadron and the 318th FIS were to be so equipped) did not happen.
Congress eventually banned further testing of the missile due to a Soviet/US agreement about testing weapons in space and the programme officially ended in 1986.
For Celestial Eagle it wasn’t the end and the aircraft was still in service 22 years later, being assigned to the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida Air National Guard. On the 22nd anniversary of that unique mission on Sep. 13, 2007, Major General ‘Doug’ Pearson was reunited with the aircraft which was flown that day by his son, Captain Todd Pearson. Celestial Eagle was eventually mothballed at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base `boneyard’ in August 2010.
F-15 Eagle is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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