The McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle is a military aviation icon. A hugely successful fighter, and latterly multirole strike fighter, the aircraft has been an instantly recognisable sight across the globe since it entered USAF service in January 1976. Since May 1977 the Eagle has also been a familiar sight in European skies.
Alas, it is a sight that is now no more, with RAF Lakenheath’s 493rd Fighter Squadron (FS) ‘The Grim Reapers’ having being replaced by the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II with the newly reactivated 495th FS which joins the 48th Fighter Wing’s two squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles.
Gareth Stringer takes a look at the history of the F-15 Eagle in Europe, with images from the GAR team.
This is truly the end of an era; one which commenced with the arrival of F-15A and B models for USAFE (United States Air Forces Europe) in Germany and, almost half a century later, ends with the 493rd taking its F-15Cs and Ds back to the United States just last week.
36th TFW / FW Bitburg AB – “The Fightin’ 36th“, “The Eifel Wing”
The 36th Tactical Fighter Wing at Bitburg AB was the first European unit to receive the F-15 Eagle.
Located in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, approximately 16 miles northwest of Trier and 31 miles northeast of Luxembourg city, Bitburg, which once had almost 80 Eagles on its books, was one of the World’s largest F-15 bases.
The 36th TFW was comprised as follows:
22nd TFS / FS (red tail)
“Stingers”, “Adlers”, “Bees”, “Bumblebees”, “The Big 22: Last of the Red Hot Fighter Squadrons”
F-15A/B July 1977 – May 1981
F-15C/D May 1981 – February 1994
53rd TFS / FS (yellow tail)
F-15A/B November 1977- May 1981
F-15C/D May 1981 – February 1994
525th TFS / FS (blue tail)
April 1977 – January 1981
F-15C/D December 1980 – March 1992
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Bitburg’s fighter squadrons conducted routine Cold War air defence training missions, however Gulf War 1 in 1990 / 1991 saw them and their F-15s thrust into combat operations.
Not a single F-15 Eagle was lost in combat during Desert Storm and on 13th March 1991 the deployed squadrons of the 36th returned to Bitburg at the end of a victorious campaign and with an incredible total of 17 air-to-air successes to their name.
The 36th soon deployed once again however, back to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base in support of Operation Provide Comfort. The 36th flew a further 285 sorties over Iraq, once again without loss.
On 1st October 1991 the wing was redesignated as the 36th Fighter Wing and the 525th Fighter Squadron was deactivated in March 1992 as part of the initial post-Cold War drawdown in Europe.
In 1993 Bitburg AB would find itself part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process that saw the closure of many military sites in a series of post-Cold War force reductions and, in July 1993, USAFE announced the closure of Bitburg AB and the deactivation of the 36th Fighter Wing.
On 1st October 1994 the 36th Fighter Wing was officially deactivated and the unit’s final Wing Commander, Brigadier General Roger E. Carleton, handed Bitburg AB over to the German government.
In 1995, the base was designated the Bitburg Airfield Trade Area and it is now home to 180 business enterprises.
52nd FW Spangdahlem AB – “Sabers”
After the closure of Bitburg AB it was announced that one squadron of F-15C/D Eagles would remain in Germany, so in 1994 the 53rd FS was moved, along with 18 aircraft, to Spangdahlem AB, not far from Bitburg.
53rd FS F-15C/D (yellow tail)
February 1994 – March 1999
The squadron would go on to participate in operations over Bosnia and Northern Iraq but was disbanded at Spangdahlem AB in 1999 following further USAFE reorganisation and cutbacks.
32nd TFS/FS Soesterberg AB
The Eagles from Soesterberg AB in the Dutch province of Utrecht arrived in 1978 and played a unique role in the USAF as the only squadron under the control of a foreign country, with the unit falling under operational remit of the Dutch military.
The squadron still participated in Operation Desert Storm and Provide Comfort however and on 28th January 1991 an F-15C from the squadron, flown by Donald “Muddy” Watrous, shot down a MiG-23 with an AIM-7M.
In 1991 the squadron actually swapped older F-15A/Bs for its newer F-15C/Ds. While their newer jets headed for Saudi Arabia, the F-15A/Bs that replaced them were updated MSIP (Multi-Stage Improvement Program) airframes and at that time, with brand new avionics, were the most advanced F-15 Eagles in service.
32nd TFS (orange tail)
F-15A/B September 1978 – May 1980
F-15C/D June 1980 – October 1991
F-15A/B MSIP October 1991 – January 1994
On 4th of July 1989, an F-15C on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) scrambled from Soesterberg to intercept a Soviet Air Force MiG-23 Flogger that was flying into Belgium. It soon became apparent that the MiG-23 was not only unarmed but it was also unmanned! The pilot had ejected after suffering engine problems over Poland, but following the ejection the engine continued to operate and the aircraft flew on, albeit without its pilot, until it ran out of fuel and crashed into a house in Belgium.
Soesterberg is now home to the National Military Museum which focuses on the history of the Dutch armed forces.
Air Forces Iceland / 35th Wing ACC Naval Air Station Keflavik
In July 1985 the first F-15C was flown from Langley AFB to Keflavik to begin replacing the 57th FIS (Fighter Interceptor Squadron) F-4E Phantom IIs.
The Keflavik based Eagles differed from other squadrons as they regularly utilised conformal fuel tanks (CFTs). These were necessary so that the 57th FIS could routinely patrol the large areas between Iceland and Greenland and the northern Atlantic up to Scotland.
57th FIS F-15C/D July 1985 – March 1995 (black and white checkerboard tail)
With other ANG units receiving the F-15A/B at this time and with the 57th FIS never having operated the most modern frontline aircraft, it came as something of a surprise when the unit was allocated the F-15C/D. They were, however, and the unit was assigned the IS tailcode. Until 1992 the squadron operated under the auspices of Air Forces Iceland but in that year Air Combat Command assumed control of both AFI and the 57th FIS. AFI deactivated in 1993 and command was passed on to 35th Wing which transferred from George AFB. But this was short-lived and in 1994 command transferred once again, this time to the 85th Wing.
USAF cutbacks and a new agreement with government of Iceland saw the 57th FIS deactivated on 1st March 1995 and from then until 2002, when the 85th Wing was itself stood down, air defence duties were undertaken by regular USAF and Air National Guard F-15 units rotating through Iceland every 90 days.
48th FW / 493rd FS RAF Lakenheath
The last F-15C/D unit in Europe, the 493rd FS operated the Eagle from 1994 until 2022, providing air superiority and air defence support for the United States and NATO operations.
A stellar unit, the 493rd has earned numerous commendations and awards, including the United States Air Force Association’s Hughes Trophy in 1997 and 1999 and, in 2007, 2014, 2016 and 2019 the Raytheon Trophy, recognising the unit as the top fighter squadron in the United States Air Force.
493rd FS F-15C/D January 1994 – April 2022 (yellow tail)
“The Grim Reapers”
Officially reactivated on 1st January 1994, the 493rd had flown the F-111F, also from RAF Lakenheath, until 1992. Its first two F-15 Eagles arrived from Bitburg AB on 15th November 1993 and the rest of the squadron’s 18 aircraft arrived from Langley AFB and Eglin AFB, with the final arrival taking place on 22nd July 1994.
The squadron grew to 24 aircraft when the 53rd FS deactivated at Spangdahlem in 1998 and flew it’s final operational sortie in April 2022, with the aircraft leaving for new homes in the USA just a week or so later on 27th April.
While Lakenheath will remain home to the F-15E Strike Eagle for some time to come, the single seat Eagle has flown the nest, and we can but hope to see visiting aircraft to the UK while the airframe remains in service.
We hope you enjoy our extensive Eagle gallery below…….