Return F-15 Eagle
By Dr. Raymond L. Puffer
Air Force Flight Center historian
A brand-new fighter type lifted off from the main runway on July 27, 1972. On that day, McDonnell Douglas chief test pilot Irving L. Burrows took the new F-15A Eagle on its first flight, a 50-minute sortie that reached 12,000 feet and 250 knots. Of more than 150 "first flights" that have taken place at Edwards Air Force Base, that one was one of the most significant, both for the Air Force and for the Flight Test Center.
The Air Force was to get its first fighter plane designed for the air superiority role since the F-86 Sabre appeared in the late 1940s. The AFFTC, in turn, was beginning a partnership that would continue through the next three decades.
A long road led up to that first flight.
It started with an Air Force concept study called Fighter Experimental (FX) in the early 1960s, when several Century Series fighters and the F-4 began to grapple with enemy air strength in Vietnam. By 1967, with the war in Vietnam at its height, the limitations of multi-mission fighters in air combat were becoming obvious. Accordingly, the Air Force began to focus on the development of a new high performance fighter optimized for air-to-air combat. The new jet would have to be high powered and agile, capable of overcoming any existing opponent yet sophisticated enough to prevail against any projected threat from the Soviet Union or its allies.
The resulting F-15 pushed technology to its limits, an optimum blend of airframe, power and avionics. It would have to be a large airplane with immense thrust, like the F-4 Phantom II, yet still have the very low wing loading vital for combat maneuvering.
Accordingly, the F-15 was designed with broad-chord wings supplemented with additional lift from the upper surface of the wide fuselage. This feature showed its value several years later in the Middle East, when an Israeli F-15 lost its right wing in combat and was still able to return to its base for a normal landing.
But light wing loading itself is not enough for all-around superiority. Heavy thrust is also vital, and in the F-15 it was supplied by a pair of newly-developed Pratt & Whitney F100 turbofan engines rated at 15,000 pounds of thrust at maximum power, and 25,000 in afterburner. That meant more than just statistics.
Fifty-thousand pounds of thrust in a 48,000-pound fighter meant that, for the first time in aviation history, a thrust-to-weight ratio exceeding 1:1 had been achieved. Many airplanes could travel straight up, but the F-15 was the first to be able to accelerate while doing so.
The F-15 Joint Test Force was activated on July 1, 1971, a year before the Eagle's first flight. AFFTC pilots made frequent Preliminary Air Force Evaluation flights all through the contractor's test and evaluation phase. This allowed the Center to validate the contractor's results and reduced or eliminated some of its own tests.
The F-15 JTF was redesignated the F-15 Combined Test Force (CTF) in August 1979, and in 1997 the CTF celebrated 25 years of F-15 evaluation. That quarter-century had passed without a single Class A accident, a feat virtually unrivaled in military flight-testing.
By now, of course, that first flight in 1972 might seem like ancient history. It took place 29 years ago, before many Team Edwards members were born.
Since then the F-15 and its systems have steadily been improved almost beyond recognition, and in various armed conflicts the F-15 has destroyed nearly 100 hostile aircraft without a single loss.
The pure air combat F-15A , designed to the slogan "Not a pound for air-to-ground" has been steadily improved and even developed into the highly capable F-15E strike fighter. Through all of the F-15s numerous changes and enhancements, the AFFTC has been a partner every step of the way.
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