When the McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) F-15 Eagle took to the skies for the first time, there was little doubt that it would be a tremendous success…as a fighter. There was a non-trivial group of influencers in the fighter community that believed fighters were fighters and bombers were bombers, and never the twain should meet. “Not a pound for air-to-ground” was their mantra, and they spoke it long and loud.
But the realities of aircraft procurement, and the ever-rising costs associated with the process, meant that the Air Force had to at least consider multiple roles for their purchases. Since its creation, McDonnell Douglas had been preaching the Eagle’s ground attack capabilities, hoping to persuade the Air Force to augment (and eventually replace) its fleet of F-111 Aardvarks, as well as the few remaining F-4 Phantoms not yet dedicated to defense suppression.
For its part, the F-111 was an outstanding attack aircraft, possessing awesome low-level performance (its record in the 1st Gulf War backs that assertion). But its early teething problems and a disastrous first deployment in Vietnam left a blot that could not be expunged, regardless of record.
So the Air Force opened a competition and McDonnell Douglas got to work. Starting with a 2-seat D-model, they developed add-on conformal fuel tanks that were attached to the fuselage. Additional hardpoints were added to carry bombs and the airframe was strengthened to handle the additional stresses and weight. The engines were upgraded to higher-performing models.
But the most important changes came in the cockpit and in the nose (where the radar dish was housed). An advanced Hughes Synthetic Apeture Radar was shoehorned into the nose, and the cockpit was completely revamped. The “guy-in-back” was presented with four massive liquid crystal displays. The Pave Tack technology (perfected in the F-111) was installed, along with numerous additional sensors and the top-of-the-line LANTIRN infrared system.
McDonnell Douglas brought their creation to the competition, facing the Panavia Tornado and an incredible delta-winged F-16 from General Dynamics. And while the F-15 didn’t have quite the low-altitude performance of the F-111, its overall performance and advanced technology allowed it to carry the day and win the fly-offs.
This ground-attack F-15, a dark gray 2-seat E-model that was named the Strike Eagle, first flew as a production aircraft on December 11, 1986.
Recommended Reading: World Air Power Journal – This publication has ceased production, but Volume 21 (from the summer of 1995) has the Strike Eagle as its focus aircraft. If you can find a copy…