photos by Michael J. Hasenauer / Story by Christie Vanover
On Dec. 8, 2021. The F-15C flew its final Weapons School defensive counter air sortie during Weapons Instructor Course 21-B at Nellis AFB. It marked the end of the F-15C Fighter Weapons School program.
he United States Air Force is continuing to modernize its future fighter force, and part of that evolution includes the sunset of the F-15C Eagle division of the United States Air Force Weapons School Weapons Instructor Course.
The single-seat F-15C aircraft entered the U.S. Air Force inventory in 1979, and weapons officers have been trained on the aircraft’s tactics at the Weapons School at Nellis since 1978.
Those years of tradition came to an end Dec. 8, as the last cadre of students and instructors flew the final defensive counter air vul for Weapons Instructor Course 21-B.
Maj. Rodolfo Cruz is the Director of Operations for the 433rd Weapons Squadron and one of the last five WIC instructors for the F-15C. He graduated as part of class 18-A, and became an instructor in 2019.
“I love the F-15C,” he said. “We always brag about the record of 104 to zero, and that is predominately based on the fact that we have the air superiority fighter. I don’t want it to die, but we have to move on, because if we continue to rest on our laurels, it’s going to make the fight that much harder for us.”
Cruz said he took a different approach when teaching this last iteration of students, because as the students transition, they will likely be in their jobs a bit longer, because there will be no subsequent students to replace them.
“We spent a little bit more time on the critical thinking concept rather than finessing the individual Eagle execution that they should already know. We had to think about how we as the Weapons School think about problems, so that when the graduates go out into the Combat Air Force, they can think about the problems in the same manner,” he said.
Maj. Michael Tope, the WIC 21-B F-15C class leader, said he and his fellow F-15C WPS graduates are prepared to take on the new leadership role as the airframe’s last Weapons School graduates.
“We are having to pivot as an Air Force,” he said. “We train against the current threats and to be ready in case we need to employ. The baseline threat has changed so much, and the ranges at which people are shooting and dying in air-to-air war have increased so significantly over the last 20 years it is pretty incredible.
“The F-15 has some advances, but it’s still the F-15 from the 1970s in a lot of ways,” he added. “That speaks to the capabilities of the maintainers and the people who have worked on the jets, as well as the instructors who have developed different tactics.”
At the Air Force Association annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in September, Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command discussed the Air Force’s future fighter roadmap.
“We must move the Air Force from seven different platforms toward four plus one,” Kelly said at the conference. “We must keep the F-22 dominant for air superiority in a highly contested environment and facilitate a hot handover with our Next Generation Air Dominance capability.”
He said the F-35 will be the cornerstone of the contested environment force, with the F-15E and EX providing the big range, big weapons and disruptive fifth gen avionics and sensors to complement the F-35. The newest F-16s will remain an affordable capacity fighter, and the A-10 will be the “plus one.”
At Nellis, the Eagle Aircraft Maintenance Unit, 57th Wing Maintenance Group, maintains 16 F-15Cs, which are assigned to the 53rd and 57th Wings. The jets will be relocated to several locations. Some will be reassigned to various Guard units or to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida for test missions. Others will be sent to a depot for refurbishing or to a boneyard in Arizona.
Following WPS 21-B, Eagle AMU will deactivate, and maintainers will be assigned locally or will be relocated to meet the needs of the Air Force. Cruz and several other F-15C instructors plan to transition to the Air National Guard, while Tope is going to Eglin AFB to work with the F-15EX test and evaluation program.
As the F-15C program sunsets at Nellis, the F-15EX fighter program will continue to make advancements. Operational test missions were conducted at Nellis in October, and additional testing is anticipated at the base in the future.
“It’s hard for us to forecast what the next fight is going to be like, but we can anticipate that it’s not going to be like the fights that we had in the past,” said Cruz. “When we talk about air superiority and air dominance, we don’t want to associate that with one airframe or two airframes. It’s going to be something more unconventional.”