Flying with the 'Black Panthers'
Jamie Hunter visits the 494th FS 'Black Panthers' at RAF Lakenheath for a mission in an F-15E Strike Eagle (the lucky, lucky...!!)
The United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) can draw upon a formidable array of military aviation hardware. The US forces reductions in Europe have not affected the quality of the combat aircraft employed here, and the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle forms the cornerstone of the Third Air Force's capability.
The 494th Fighter Squadron 'Mighty Black Panthers' is one of two squadrons of F-15Es assigned to the 48th FW 'Liberty Wing' at RAF Lakenheath. Over ten years ago, on 21 February 1992, the first F-15E for the wing touched down to begin replacing the F-111F 'Aardvark'. The first squadron at Lakenheath to receive the 'E' was the 492nd FS 'Madhatters' - which stood up on 20 April 1992. The second unit was to be red tail-striped 494th FS 'Mighty Black Panthers' - which was operational by 13 August the same year. The 493rd FS 'Grim Reapers' was later reformed with F-15Cs from the disbanded 36th TFW at Bitburg AB.
Planning for my four-ship F-15E mission with the 494th FS began around 05:30. I join the seven other crewmembers to look at weather and mission profiles in order to plan the most beneficial training mission. The plan for 'Casino 61 flight' is to take us out from Lakenheath after an unrestricted climb and up to the Lake District for some low-level target runs, followed by air combat and general handling out over the North Sea. After an intense period of planning and a long sit down brief to also discuss photos I wanted, it is time 'step to the jets'.
We pile into the locker room to zip into g-suits, clip on life vests and grab helmets, masks and gloves, before stepping out into the fresh morning air. We head to the waiting van, the last four hours having flown by. The weather is kind - there isn't a cloud in the sky and already the air is thick with the sound of screaming Eagle engines as the morning wave gets into full swing. After driving around the tree lined 'Panthers' shelter complex, my pilot and I jump out last. There, sitting proudly in front of its shelter is our jet. Excited? You bet!
In keeping with the hectic pace of the morning, I jump straight into the back cockpit and start strapping in. Everything seems to be happening at lightning speed and my pilot Maj Hartigan carries out the walk-round checks. The next time I look up from my maze of straps and tubes he is already in the front cockpit bringing the jet to life, working hard to make our 10:00 check-in time. With the canopy still cranked open, the right intake pitches down as the starboard engine spools up. The pilot assisting me loads the mission data into the navigation computer and then gives me a thumbs-up as he climbs down. We are ready. "Casino check 2, 3, 4. Lakenheath tower Casino 61 ready for taxi."
A wave to the crew chief and we're on our way. Ease out to the famous taxiway that leads down to the 'last chance' check area for the EOR crew to check over the jets and remove safety pins. I remember my briefings and start to flick between modes on my four Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) in the back. A moving map with our route, a FLIR picture from the LANTIRN pod, a radar picture and a heading indicator. As we wait for all four jets to be readied at the EOR I chat to my pilot. He reveals his wealth of F-15 experience and also the fact that he used to fly Phantoms out of George AFB. My mind wanders briefly to thoughts of flying in a four-ship of Phantoms .
"Casino 61 flight ready for departure." Four Strike Eagles are lined up on the runway ready for action, with us at the head of the formation. "OK, here we go"; the throttles are eased forward into full military power and the brakes released to unleash this truly awesome jet. The gentle acceleration builds into an incredible speed, with the shelters on the left rushing by. I'm already clicking away and then my pilot asks "Are you ready?" - "I'm ready", I reply. The stick is yanked back to put us into a gut-wrenching 7g snap into the vertical with vapour pouring off the top surfaces of the wing. We steam to 17,000ft with graceful ease and then roll off the top.
The rest of the formation is soon with us and we head north for RAF Leeming to let down to low-level. The cloud starts to thicken as we head west into the Lakes and as we descend we start to pull into some hard turns. The g-suit inflates constantly, totally enveloping my lower body - I remember to grunt out my breathing and how I'd been warned that the Eagle was renowned for making you airsick. Even regular crews get sick in the Eagle at low-level. I can see that it's no wonder with the g-suit pushing so hard on your legs and stomach.
Turning and burning through the valleys requires incredibly skilled flying and really is extremely demanding. We are rolling and pulling hard round into the next valley - in wartime you'd be dodging SAMs or fighters, staying low. This really is a very aggressive and exhilarating environment and is definitely not for the faint hearted! We move back into the number two position to chase the lead jet up Windermere and through the Thirlmere valley. Making the turns the jet buffets when flying through the dirty air left by the jet in front.
After several target runs, we pull out of low-level north of Ullswater to form up and head east towards Flamborough Head for some air combat and general handling over the North Sea. We do some pairs work, but spend most of the time shooting the photos you see here. Then all too quickly it's time to head back to base. After an impressive 'initials' and a snappy break, a couple of low approaches are followed by a brutish pitch up and 6g break for our last downwind leg followed by an effortless landing.
What an amazing experience.
"Can I do it again please?"