The F-15EX Eagle II is the Air Power’s new fighter

Earlier this month, the US Air Power actually dropped a large curtain to disclose its newest fighter jet: the F-15EX Eagle II. The ceremony at Eglin Air Power Base in Florida marked the official debut of the twin-engine plane, full with puffs of fog to set the scene. 

Regardless of some complaints concerning the jet’s uncreative new identify, the Boeing-made fighter deserves an in depth look. Model-new plane fashions don’t typically enter service, and once they do, they fly for many years. 

This mannequin F-15 is the newest in a protracted line of plane with related names relationship again to the 1970s, so it may be onerous to know exactly what’s new about this gray winged machine. Right here’s the whole lot you may wish to know concerning the F-15EX Eagle II and its steel ancestors—plus what one pilot says is the craft’s key weak point in 21st-century battles.  

The F-15EX at its unveiling on April 7. Samuel King Jr. / US Air Power

The historical past of the F-15 Eagle

For those who shut your eyes and movie a generic fighter jet—the sort you may see in a film—you’re in all probability imaging one thing like an F-15 or F-16. (Though should you’re serious about Prime Gun, these had been F-14 Tomcats.)  All these letters and numbers can get complicated, so right here’s what to know concerning the essence of the F-15 Eagle. 

The Eagle is a toddler of the 1960s and 1970s, and it had a simple goal: to excel at air-to-air combating. “It comes from this distinctive historic second,” says Michael Hankins, a curator with the Nationwide Air and House Museum who’s writing a e-book on each the F-15 and F-16. He pegs its genesis in 1964. “There’s a faction of parents, throughout the Air Power anyway, which have this concept that the standard fighter mission, specializing in air-to-air fight, has not been adequately paid consideration to.” 

[Related: I flew in an F-16 with the Air Force and oh boy did it go poorly]

The Eagle grew out of that single-purpose mission. “The catchphrase turned ‘not a pound for air-to-ground,” Hankins says, which means the aircraft wouldn’t be outfitted for dropping bombs. “It was all about air-to-air combating.” 

It’s a easy thought: create a flying hammer, not an airborne Swiss Military Knife. 

The aircraft flew for the primary time within the early 1970s, and Hankins says that within the many years because it has executed its mission beautifully. “It’s acquired an unbelievable fame,” he notes. “You’ll be able to’t deny that the F-15 is among the greatest air-to-air fighters in historical past, and I feel it’s one of the iconic.”

The F-15: A watch like a pizza pie     

To have the ability to see distant adversaries, the jet wanted a strong radar.

“They designed the plane primarily based on the radar dish,” says Brian Kamp, who flew the F-15 for 3 many years and goes by the callsign Spiderman, or simply Spidey. (You’ll be able to take heed to him speak concerning the Eagle on the Fighter Pilot Podcast.) He notes that the radar dish, which is positioned within the aircraft’s nostril, in entrance of the cockpit, measures round three toes extensive. “That’s a reasonably large pizza,” he says. 

That dish permits the plane to detect enemies from distant, so pilots might theoretically shoot them earlier than they might even visually see them. However the actuality of fight, and the “fog of conflict,” Kamp says, made the duty extra advanced. “You don’t know should you can shoot this enemy aircraft, since you don’t know if it’s an enemy,” he notes. “There’s friendlies throughout, there’s confusion, so it’s important to typically get into a visible area, and get right into a dogfight.” 

However regardless of the complexity of air-to-air combating, the outcomes from the Eagle, whose job was to “win the skies,” had been stellar. The F-15C mannequin, he notes, “has the most effective document in historical past of aerial fight.” Its efficiency: “104 victories, zero losses, air-to-air.” 

It’s additionally a really bodily giant plane. At about 64 toes lengthy and 43 toes extensive, it’s shorter than a tennis courtroom however considerably wider. From the bottom, the tops of its two tails rise almost 19 toes excessive. Two engines energy it, giving it a stage or redundancy {that a} single-motor F-16 lacks. 

An F-15C takes off.
An F-15C in 2019. A fast solution to differentiate it visually from different Air Power fighter jets with two tails is that the vertical stabilizers on the F-15 are parallel to 1 one other, versus angled outwards like on the F-22 or F-35. Matthew Seefeldt / US Air Power

Many plane have nicknames—the F-16 is named the viper—and completely different variations of the F-15 are typically referred to by their paint coloration. The F-15C or D is a “mild gray,” and the F-15E Strike Eagle (which, counterintuitively, has an air-to-ground mission) is a “darkish gray.” It’s additionally typically referred to as a “mud hen.”

It asks a whole lot of its pilots. Kamp notes that between simply the stick and throttle controls within the cockpit, there are 16 switches. A single change on the stick, he says, has “over 34 capabilities—one change!” 

[Related: A pilot passed out while flying an F-15 over Oregon. Here’s what happened next.]

Plus, there’s little automation. Previous-school planes just like the F-15C mannequin had mechanical linkages—components like cables and pulleys—between the controls a pilot makes use of and the surfaces on the plane that transfer. “The Eagle has at all times been a handbook plane,” Kamp says. He notes that the extent of its automation was actually only a single change, which was for “altitude maintain.” It did simply that: informed the aircraft to take care of a particular altitude. The F-15C and D plane do have a pc augmentation system for the flight controls, nonetheless, and the Strike Eagle has a extra sturdy, digital model of the identical.

Mix working such a posh machine with the bodily results of the g-forces, and presumably the presence of an adversary, and also you get an thought of what it’s like. “It’s the craziest, most weird, most complex, most tough sport that exists,” he says. “And it’s life or demise.” 

An F-15E Strike Eagle in flight.
The F-15E Strike Eagle is a darker gray coloration. Matthew Plew / US Air Power

The F-15EX: The latest Eagle 

The most recent model of the Eagle—formally referred to as the Eagle II—is what is going to carry aviators into that life-or-death contest. The C and D mannequin F-15s are getting outdated, so that is what is going to substitute them. 

Pilots will now have a high-definition coloration touchscreen that measures 19 by 10 inches. A secondary display screen is within the backseat to be used if the rear spot is occupied (Netflix anybody?), though the aircraft will in all probability be occupied by only a single particular person more often than not. 

The Eagle II is now utterly fly-by-wire, too. As an alternative of these previous-gen pulleys and cables, the aircraft now digitally interprets how the pilot strikes the controls, after which digital indicators speak to the remainder of the plane. Pilots typically say that with this type of plane, human aviators are simply voting—they vote by transferring the stick to inform the aircraft what they’d prefer it to do, whereas the flight management pc figures the remainder out. 

The aircraft additionally has what’s generally known as an “open mission system spine,” says Maj. Aaron Eshkenazi, a pilot with the Air Power who has been flying the F-15EX. That makes the plane extra modular. Engineers can plug software program code into it for a brand new sensor or weapon, for instance, and that system is “remoted from our security of flight.” 

Lastly, the Eagle II is just like what Boeing has already been making for overseas clients: the F-15SA for Saudi Arabia, and the QA for Qatar. The Air Power says it could buy as many as 144 of them. 

There’s one massive factor the F-15 Eagle II can’t do 

On the surface, the plane has a decades-old design, and which means there’s one factor it’s not: stealthy. Fifth-generation fighter jets, just like the F-35, are designed to evade enemy radar. The F-15EX, or some other Eagle, is as loud and apparent as a soccer participant. And for that purpose, Heather Penney, who flew vipers for a decade (name signal: Fortunate), is crucial of the acquisition. 

“Stealth is the price of entry to any trendy battlespace,” Penney, now a senior resident fellow on the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Research, says. “And it doesn’t matter how superb the inner sensors, and avionics, and digital warfare [capabilities] is.” The plane’s radar signature, she says, is “noisy.” 

[Related: Watch a computer clobber a human pilot in a simulated fighter jet duel]

The context behind the acquisition, she says, has roots in two points: one is that it’s costly for the Air Power to repeatedly preserve fleets of dated jets. “The common age of an Air Power fighter these days is about 30 years outdated,” she says. She notes that the F-16 she flew dates to 1985, and it’s nonetheless kicking round. The opposite concern is the Air Power’s want to diversify its base away from simply Lockheed-Martin-made jets just like the F-35—the Eagle II is made by Boeing.

She argues {that a} trendy fighter jet ought to have a triad of capabilities: stealth, info techniques introduced to the pilot in a manageable manner, and the flexibility to conduct digital warfare and jam an enemy. “You can’t put this plane within the battlespace, as a result of it’s lacking a type of legs,” Penney says. 

“Once we purchase fighter jets, it’s not concerning the cool issue,” she provides. “What issues is how we will make the most of them in fight, and the way efficient they are going to be for his or her pilots and for our nation.” She provides the Air Power’s determination a “massive thumbs down.”  

An F-15EX Eagle II in flight.
An F-15EX in flight. John McRell / US Air Power

Predictably, some F-15 pilots disagree with that evaluation. Eshkenazi, who’s flying the F-15EX now, notes that the platform can carry a bigger weapons payload than the F-35. For instance, it may maintain a dozen AMRAAM missiles.

He additionally factors out that the Eagle makes a very good distraction when paired with a stealth fighter, the identical manner a magician may pull your eyes in direction of one thing shiny to maintain you from noticing a sneaky transfer. The Eagle might fly with an F-22 or F-35, for instance, and the adversary’s eyes could be on the Eagle. “It permits my fifth-gen, and sixth-gen companions, to go in undetected,” Eshkenazi notes. 

Kamp, the previous Eagle pilot, agrees. Merely being seen could be a deterrence. “Our job is to clear the skies,” he says. “We don’t must shoot one missile—we now have to place worry within the enemy’s eyes, and have them flip away and go house.” 

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