When the British approached North American Aviation about building Curtiss P-40 Warhawks for them, James Kindelberger (North American’s president) told the British he could design and build something better than a Warhawk in less than 120 days…less time, it turns out, time than it took to re-tool his factory. And Kindelberger was true to his word. I believe the first plane was ready to fly in 117 days, though delays in getting the engines from Allison would hold things up just a bit.
Still, that’s pretty remarkable in light of how long the procurement process for weapons systems takes now. But that’s to be expected when one compares the complexity of a P-51 Mustang with, say, an F-15 Eagle (to say nothing of government red tape, bureacracy, and gobs of paper-shuffling). McDonnell Douglas was awarded the contract for the “Project F-X” (which became the F-15) the last week of 1969, but rather than 117 days to first example, it was two-and-a-half years…June 26, 1972.
And these days, we often hear of project delays and cost overruns in government projects. But McDonnell had done a really good job. In his book on the fighter, Dennis Jenkins writes, “At that point, the program was essentially on schedule, with costs cited as below target, in contrast to the significant overruns and schedule slips so obvious on the F-111 and C-5A programs.” And like the Mustang, it was those pesky engines holding things up. Jenkins continues, “Although the airframe and avionics efforts were on schedule, Pratt & Whitney was still running behind on both deliveries and testing.”
It was true that costs were greater than expected in some areas, but McDonnell had pared back where it could on the “luxury” items. Conventional instrumentation was used rather than more sophisticated electronic systems. The multi-sensor display were held off for a future phase, as were helmet-mounted sighting (which has really only become prominent in our latest-generation fighters anyways) and the electro-optical sighting system.
While it can be said that the elimination of some of these systems would limit the aircraft a little bit in its initial configuration, the first F-15 that rolled off the assembly on this day in 1972 was still a formidable platform. For sure, it was the first pure air-superiority dogfighter the inventory had seen in 20 years.
Recommended Reading: McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle