By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on December 9, 2012 1:50 AM
4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt talks about the longevity of the F-15E Strike Eagle during a ceremony held on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base on Friday.
The blue sky had been consumed by the kind of gray that seemed to energize the insurgents operating near Coalition positions nestled in a valley not far from the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.
A mortar attack had already unfolded -- a result, Air Force Capt. Ryan Bodenheimer suggested, of the enemy's belief that the cloud deck above them would prevent American fighter jets from thwarting their acts of terror.
They had no idea that streaking toward their location was an aircraft that has seen more than two decades of action -- that the crew commanding that F-15E would soon make itself known; that its mere presence in the sky would boost the morale of the men and women defending the forward operating base they had just hit.
"What happens on cloudy days is the Taliban feels emboldened. They think that they wouldn't be able to be targeted by jets, so they may have the attitude that they are able to target Coalition forces easier," Bodenheimer said. "So we went down relatively low ... and started executing our show of presence. The point behind a show of presence is to re-instill confidence in friendly forces. After we climbed away, our Air Force liaison said (it) was effective. ... It showed that no matter what -- in combat, terrible weather or rugged mountains -- the Strike Eagle will be there."
And not just any Strike Eagle.
It just so happens that the F-15E that strengthened the resolve of those men and women on the ground that day was the most notable fighter of its kind in the Air Force's inventory -- the one that during that very sortie logged its unprecedented 10,000th flight hour.
Members of the 335th Fighter Squadron and 4th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Jeannie Leavitt welcomed officials from Boeing to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Friday to witness the unveiling of a model aircraft designed to commemorate F-15E Strike Eagle 89-0487's historic achievement.
But each person who spoke during the ceremony seemed to agree that without the men and women who have, since the early 1990s, ensured the aircraft was fit to fly, it would be nothing more than an expensive collection of metal and wires.
Base historian Dr. Roy Heidicker was among those who praised the generations of airmen -- from maintainers and support personnel to aviators and logistics specialists -- who have kept the jet in the skies.
"Aircraft are important, but the most important thing is the airmen," he said. "I salute you on this great day in which we celebrate 25 years of this extraordinary aircraft, but let's not lose perspective. Even more significant is all of you and the amazing job you continue to do."
Will Lane, Boeing's manager of business development for the F-15, agreed.
"I know that this ceremony is really not about that airplane," he said. "It's only a symbol ... of all the men and women who had something to do with keeping it going."
And the stories they have helped write over the years are many.
No. 487, as it is affectionately called by those who, to this day, fly it, was commissioned Nov. 13, 1990. It has been commanded during operations Desert Storm, Deliberate Guard, Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. But its presence in the skies over wartorn countries for 20-plus years and the fact that it is the first F-15 of any kind -- the U.S. military has several other models, including the F-15A and F-15C, in its fleet -- to reach 10,000 hours, are not the only things that distinguish it.
On Feb. 13, 1991, it made history.
It was a "moonless" night in Iraq and Dan Bakke and Tim Bennett were commanding No. 487 when a distress call reached the cockpit.
"They said, 'There are troops in contact -- three helicopters dismounting troops. Kill all helicopters,'" Bakke said.
The crew didn't hesitate.
"I'm going as fast as we can go -- as fast as the thing will let me -- and when we popped out of the weather, I'm looking outside and I'm like, 'There are troops everywhere,'" Bennett said. "And they are all shooting at us, at the air, at noise basically, so I figure they can probably see me."
But the airmen didn't flee. They knew a group of Americans was pinned down by the enemy -- that the weapons aboard their F-15E were the only things that could save those 17 men.
"I'm looking out there and I kind of know where (the Americans) are and, man, there are Iraqis everywhere," Bennett said. "That's when we go, 'Man, let's just let a bomb go. If it doesn't hit them, at least we'll get their attention away from the dudes on the ground.'"
More than 20 years later, Bakke can still see the ordnance falling toward his mark, an aggressive Soviet Mi-24.
"All 17 American troops on the ground were exfiltrated safely ... and that's where I am most proud."
To date, there has never been another air-to-air kill logged by a Strike Eagle.
And that, Col. Leavitt said, made Friday's ceremony all the more meaningful.
"This aircraft, this squadron, have an incredible history," she said.
But it was not lost on Seymour Johnson's top officer that No. 487 is only a part of the Air Force story -- that honoring that particular Strike Eagle was, in a way, paying tribute to all those who have made an impact in the lives of those men and women serving thousands of feet below their cockpits.
She felt it firsthand when, while stationed in Afghanistan, she was approached by a young Marine.
"He was all fired up," Leavitt said. "He said, 'My buddies and I, we were taking fire ... and all (the F-15E) had to do was fly low and fast and the enemy fire stopped.' When those soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are on the ground around the world, in harm's way, and they hear the sound ... of a Strike Eagle, that gives them the knowledge that we are there to protect their back -- to take care of them; to keep them safe."
And that, Bodenheimer said, is what makes the aircraft worth celebrating.
"I look back on that mission, and I think it was very fitting that a show of presence is what we did on the 10,000th-hour sortie," he said. "We had instilled confidence in soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen and other members of the Coalition. We let them know that no matter what, the Strike Eagle would be there above them to take on any enemy that threatened their life that day."
The pilot's weapon systems officer, Capt. Erin Short, agreed.
"The bombs we didn't drop meant the real nation-building efforts could happen instead of the continuous disruption of the efforts that were already being made by our Coalition forces and Afghan troops on the ground," she said. "It meant that us flying overhead was keeping harm away from those men and women for just a few moments longer. ... It was pretty awesome."