The 144th Fighter Wing has been home to F-15C/D Eagles for the past ten years. This fourth-generation aircraft first flew in 1976 and was originally designed to permit the U.S. Air Force to gain and maintain air supremacy. By June 18, 2013, when the first Eagle arrived at the Fresno Air National Guard Base, it had already provided air superiority for nearly 40 years.
The Wing had previously flown the F-16 Fighting Falcon for 25 years, from 1989 until 2013. The conversion to the F-15C Eagle was finalized Nov. 14, 2013, after the last of the Wing’s F-16 fleet departed to Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona.
On April 19, 2023, the Department of the Air Force announced that the 144th FW was selected to receive the F-15EX Eagle II aircraft to replace its aging F-15 fleet. The announcement came two months before June 18, 2023, the 10-year anniversary of the arrival of the first F-15C aircraft here.
Ten years ago, receiving the F-15C was a game-changer for mission operations.
“[When we got the Eagle], it was a watershed moment,” said Col. Robert Swertfager, 144th Operations Group commander. “At the time, we were conducting an Eagle’s mission with the F-16. When we got the F-15C, we could perform our tasks with an aircraft that was more capable in air superiority.”
Merely switching out fighter jets gave the unit even more opportunities to participate in air defense missions on the world stage. Since receiving the aircraft, the unit has been tasked multiple times to support combatant commands as a Theater Support Package, where maintenance, operations, and mission support Airmen deploy as a unit to support overseas missions.
“Attending Vigilant Shield in 2015 was a groundbreaking moment for the unit,” Swertfager said. “We were the first Eagle unit to go to the North Pole. The 144th FW was the [lead unit] in an expeditionary air wing stationed out of Goose Bay, Canada. We were doing polar counter combat air patrols against B-52 Stratofortresses, [which were simulating enemy aircraft].”
In 2016, selected members deployed together as the 194th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron for the first time to participate in Operation Atlantic Resolve, an operation that included U.S. actions in support of NATO’s security and stability in the European region. The 194 EFS was based in Camp Turzii, Romania, and conducted brief missions with neighboring NATO allies including Bulgaria and Estonia, culminating in more than 500 sorties flown.
“Operation Atlantic Resolve was one of my favorite missions to go on,” Swertfager said. “We stood up NATO policing for Bulgaria, and it was our very first international deployment as an F-15C unit.”
The unit returned to Europe to participate in Clear Sky 2018 in Ukraine. Griffin Airmen made military aviation history again as the first F-15C unit to land on Ukrainian soil, Oct. 6, 2019. The main objective of Clear Sky was to increase Ukraine’s ability to interoperate with other nations, and to secure the region for Ukraine and its neighbors. The 144th FW has been working with Ukraine for more than 25 years through the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program.
The European continent is not the only place where the wing has deployed. In 2019, the 194th EFS deployed to the Indo-Pacific region to support the U.S. Pacific Command as part of a TSP. During this deployment, Airmen demonstrated and established themselves as experts in air superiority while flying in South Korea, Australia and Guam with international allies.
Over the past past decade, the Griffins have also completed many shorter domestic exercises, such as Weapons Systems Evaluation Program (WSEP), Red Flag, and Checkered Flag. These events are designed to integrate the Total Force, and to test our weapons capabilities. Other exercises included Sentry Aloha and two iterations of Sentry Savannah, which are National Guard Bureau combat air exercises, providing Dissimilar Aircraft Combat Training for participating units.
The operation tempo remained steady even through the Covid-19 pandemic. While Airmen were conducting humanitarian aid missions across the state of California in response to the pandemic, flying operations and trainings never stopped.
During the pandemic, Airmen attended Sentry Aloha in February 2020, and in August 2020, the unit made military aviation history yet again by being the first F-15C unit to land at Thule Air Base, Greenland. That same year, the Griffins attended Checkered Flag in October 2020, and hosted Valley Thunder, a fighter jet interoperability exercise here, in February 2021. Later, the unit completed the most recent Sentry Aloha iteration in August 2021, which culminated in more than 100 sorties. The unit then deployed to support Operation Noble Eagle in support of Northern Aerospace Defense Command in the fall of 2021.
Post pandemic, the unit would see the final frontier at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, while conducting Dissimilar Combat Air Training in April 2022. Fast forward to now, where the unit most recently returned from WSEP 23-1 and Checkered Flag 23-8 in May 2023.
Despite remaining competitive in a world filled with fifth generation aircraft, Fresno’s aging F-15C fleet will eventually be retired, so the announcement of the F-15EX came as a relief following a period of brief uncertainty for the Wing.
“The Airmen will continue to defend our homeland with the arrival of the F-15EX,” said Chief Master Sgt. Dawn Gillaspy, 144th Fighter Wing command chief. “Our legacy will continue with greater capabilities, and our Airmen now have a sense of what the future holds for them.”
The similarities between the aircraft would allow a seamless transition while conducting the base mission.
“The beauty of the F-15EX is that it’s a known airframe for us,” Swertfager said. “There will be some new systems on the aircraft that the pilots must learn, but they’re able to learn them much faster than going to something like the F-35 Lightning II or F-22 Raptor.”
Currently, it is yet to be determined when the first F-15EX will arrive in Fresno. Until then, the men and women of the 144th FW will continue their Eagle mission, as they have been for the last decade.
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Atlantic Resolve 2016
Quick Draw 2017
The 194th Fighter Squadron stand ready for launch during Operation Quick Draw December 21, 2017. The operation was the wing’s first ever large-scale aircraft generation exercise. The 144th FW was able to generate 16 of 16 F-15 Eagle fighter jets with only a 24-hour notice. (All photos by by Senior Master Sgt. Chris Drudge)