On 11th March 2021, the first F-15EX – being the newest fighter aircraft of the United States Air Force – has arrived to Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. This aeroplane will be the first USAF F-15EX to be tested and fielded from beginning to end, through combined developmental and operational tests.
Eight pre-production F-15EX fighters were ordered by the USAF in July 2020, to allow the military and manufacturer to test and fully define their applications. Then, according to the official implementation schedule disclosed in the middle of last year, the 96th Test Wing with its the 96th Maintenance Group (MXG) and 40th Flight Test Squadron of the Air Force Materiel Command, together with the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron of the Air Combat Command, will take over those aircraft and be responsible for testing.
Starting 2020, selected personnel from the 96th MXG underwent a familiarization classroom academics and transfer to hands-on training upon arrival of the new aircraft there. Those newly qualified technicians then became trainers for the maintenance group.
In addition, a coordination between the 96th MXG and multiple F-15EX affiliated agencies was implemented, in order to resolve any issues and ensure the unit is ready to support the new F-15 variant. The aircrews also received Boeing training as well as an F-15EX simulator, both providing many of the pilots with their first hands-on experience related to the new fighter.
The Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force will manage the developmental (DT) and operational testing (OT), planning and provisioning for the aircraft. According to the schedule, the 40th Flight Test Squadron already took possession of EX1 aircraft and the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron would own EX2. The squadron air crews and testers will work together to complete the combined DT and OT simultaneously.
´The time has come to upgrade the aging F-15C/D fleet and that presents itself in the form of F-15EX, the most advanced F-15 ever created,´ said Maj. Brett Hughes, the 40th FLTS lead F-15EX DT pilot. ´This represents years of iterative design and battle proven technologies. The 40th FLTS, a squadron full of developmental testers, is ready to meet the challenge of testing America’s newest fighter.´
It should be mentioned that the F-15EX marked the third new Air Force aircraft assigned to Team Eglin in just two years. The HH-60W Jolly Green and the MH-139A Grey Wolf are also in developmental testing there.
It was also announced in August 2020, with reference to the F-15EX implementation, that the 173rd Fighter Wing would be a formal training unit for the new fighters, with its transitioning to begin in 2024.
´Being selected as the F-15EX formal training unit is an outstanding mission for the 173rd Fighter Wing,´ Col. Jeff Edwards, the 173rd FW commander, has said at that time. ´Kingsley is simply an outstanding place to train pilots. The community support is just incredible, and we have some of the best training airspace anywhere. We have a culture of fighter training—we have been in the training business for over 3 decades, in the F-4, F-16, F-15C, and now soon to be F-15EX.´
Edwards also pointed the long service life of the F-15EX airframe – 20,000 flight hours. ´That’s a long time, about double the service life of an F-15C. Not only is the airframe designed to last for a long time, the F-15EX also has an “Open Mission System” which allows the computer and avionics software to be more adaptable and more easily updated in the future. This adaptability is key, as we know that technology is continuing to accelerate,´ he added.
In the meantime, the 142nd Wing based in Portland, Oregon – and scheduled as the first operational unit to be equipped with F-15EX fighters, already launched the implementation programme and began with upgrading the base infrastructure. The first operational aircraft should arrive to Portland and the 142nd Wing around fiscal year 2025.
Purchase of the F-15EX fighters was approved in the US defence budget for 2020, to keep the provisions included in the National Defense Strategy. According to the NDS, the USAF must acquire at least 72 new combat aircraft per year. Faced with the delays of F-35 Lightning II programme, the air force authorities have decided to accept Boeing´s offer for the upgraded F-15 fighter.
The main upgrades included infrared search and track, advanced avionics, electronic warfare equipment, AESA radar and – already mentioned – redeveloped airframe with a service life of 20,000 flying hours. The ´Open Mission System´ makes the F-15EX extremely capable and rapidly adaptable to new weapons and technologies. It also has the ability to carry over three times the weapons payload of an F-35 Lightning II. Not without significance was the transition time, which was specified only in months, and the cost of flight hour.
On 2nd February 2021, the first F-15EX intended for the USAF successfully performed its maiden flight at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. Then, at the beginning of March, it was transferred to Eglin AFB. In the nearest future, the USAF plans to acquire at least 144 of the F-15EX fighters.
All photos © U.S. Department of Defence (DoD), cover photo and photo no. 1 by Samuel King Jr., photo no. 2 and 3 by 1st Lt. Karissa Rodriguez. All quotations © U.S. DoD and DoD information materials were used, in compliance with Public Domain licence. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.