F-15 Eagle Vs F-16 Fighting Falcon Vs F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet: the Aircrews' Perspective

USAF F-15C Pilot recalls DACT sorties she had against F-16s and F-18s and explains why experience (rather than the aircraft you fly) is everything in a dogfight

By Dario Leone
Jan 9 2023
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‘All 3 have their strengths and weakness in a visual fight. It will come down to training.’ Shari Williams, former US Air Force (USAF) F-15C Eagle pilot.

The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is an American twin-engine, all-weather tactical fighter aircraft designed by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) to gain and maintain air supremacy in aerial combat. Following reviews of proposals, the United States Air Force selected McDonnell Douglas’ design in 1967 to meet the service’s need for a dedicated air superiority fighter. The Eagle first flew in July 1972, and entered service in 1976.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a compact, multi-role fighter aircraft that achieved combat-ready status in 1980. It evolved from a 1972 USAF Lightweight Fighter (LWF) prototype program (where it competed against the Northrop YF-17 Cobra) which sought a small, lightweight, low cost, air superiority day fighter. The program was initiated because many in the fighter community believed that aircraft like the F-15 Eagle were too large and expensive for many combat roles.

Though losing out to the General Dynamics YF-16 (later to become the F-16 Fighting Falcon), the YF-17 would see bluer skies in the form of the later F/A-18 Hornet aboard the carriers of the US Navy.

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This design, conceived as a small and lightweight fighter, was scaled up to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is similar in size to the original F-15.

How would these exceptional fighter jets fare one versus the other in a dogfight during dissimilar aircraft combat training (DACT)?

‘All 3 have their strengths and weakness in a visual fight,’ Shari Williams, former US Air Force (USAF) F-15C Eagle pilot explains on Quora.

‘It will come down to training, the F-15C has the advantage of flying air-air dogfighting on every sortie. It’s all they do, nothing else. The F-16 and F-18 do it for a few weeks once a quarter. Put it this way. If 3 pilots of the above aircraft all had 2000 hours each in type, the F-16 and F-18 pilots might have 6–800 air-air hours. The F-15C would have 2000 hours. Training and experience count for everything. As a young 2nd Lt going through initial F-15C training we do an initial Dissimilar BFM flight. You do 1 6k Offensive setup, 1 6k defensive and a high aspect or neutral setup. To pass you had to kill when you were offensive, survive when you were defensive and at least remain neutral in the high aspects setup. You never knew who you would fight. At the time I had 35 hours in the F-15. I got paired up with a 3000hr F-16 patch wearer. With my weapons officer in my backseat (D model), we went out to fight. When offensive, I gunned the guy, defensive I got gunned and high aspect I was able to shoot him with a missile. I failed the ride. A couple days later I tried it again, this time against a senior 1st Lt with about 300 hours in the F-16. 3 engagements, 3 kills. Experience is everything!’

F-16 Pilots Explain how the Viper Dogfights and Wins Against Dissimilar Aircraft

Williams continues;

‘The F-15 can out turn the F-18 above 350 kts, the F-18 has an advantage below 350kts. Where the F-18 really suffers is drag and power. In the Eagle I never had a problem getting slow with a Hornet, I could fly my plane around 100kts and keep up with the Hornet, the advantage I enjoyed was power, even slow I could out climb and out power the Hornet. In more of an ACM environment, when we accelerated we could pick up 100kts in 3 sec or so, the Hornet would picked up around 60 kts, over time I would have the speed and power to exploit the vertical or out rate the Hornet. Now, if an Eagle pilot is not good at slow speed fights, they will lose to a good Hornet pilot…. quickly. When I had about 700 hours in the Eagle, I went out with my flight lead and we did a 2v2 with Hornets, after two longer range setups (35–40nm), we had enough gas to do a 2v2 visual butterfly setup (full up for both planes), with post merge kills. A fight that should in theory favor the Hornet. My flight lead died 5 seconds after the merge (he turned the wrong way). So, I was left to fight 2 Hornets. The fight that transitioned from a close in turning fight, to a more expanded fight, a vertical fight and back to a turning fight many times over. I slowly worked my energy up, expanding the fight to get weapons separation, and shot one Hornet, then proceeded to kill the second one at the floor with the gun. I truly think they believed they had me dead to rights after my flight lead died. That there was no way they could lose. They were wrong. Good times!’

Williams concludes;

‘Like most fights it often comes down to experience.’

Photo credit: Cpl. Andy Hurt / U.S. Air Force

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Dario Leone

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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