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04/28/13 — A record of success

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A record of success

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on April 28, 2013 1:50 AM

It's Election Day 2005 and Phil Smith is in the cockpit of one of the F-15E Strike Eagles circling the skies over Iraq.

"It was pretty much to let the Iraqi people know, 'Hey. Don't be afraid to go to the polling sites. We're here. We're watching you. We've got your back. Go make your Iraq your Iraq,'" he said. "You know, I've had the missions where I dropped bombs and, obviously, those are cool -- especially being able to support those guys on the ground -- but the thing I'll remember the most, and it's a testament to the Strike Eagle, was during those first Iraqi elections."

You don't have to sell this particular fighter pilot on the value of the F-15E.

He, perhaps more so than his comrades, understands just what the aircraft is capable of -- knowledge he gained during his stint as the leader of the Air Force's Strike Eagle Demonstration Team.

So it comes as no surprise to Smith that even as the airframe marks its 25th year of service, it is still being called on to fly critical missions in war theaters across the world -- that those in charge of projecting what the branch's future fleet will look like say the F-15E will be in it for the foreseeable future.

The Strike Eagle, he said, is just that good.

"It carries more air-to-ground munitions than any other fighter out there. It carries more missiles than any other U.S. fighter. It carries more gas than any other U.S. fighter out there," Smith said. "So if you need somebody to carry a lot of munitions deep inside enemy lines, the Strike Eagle is by far the No. 1 aircraft ... to do it."

But the payload it brings to the fight -- and the fact that it can hold enough gas to keep it in the skies far longer than other aircraft -- are not the only things that distinguish it from the other fighters in the fleet.

Having two people -- a pilot and weapons system officer -- in the cockpit is a big reason it is called on again and again by combatant commanders in theater.

"The Strike Eagle has re-rolled itself into the perfect platform because you've got the synergistic effect of the pilot and WSO. You've got one guy completely dedicated to flying the airplane and all that while the other guy is dedicated to targeting and ... guiding the bombs into the targets," Smith said. "So when you've got a WSO that's great at his job and a pilot that's great at his job, there's nothing the Strike Eagle can't do."

*

A younger Smith was just another 10-year-old -- a boy standing along the MacDill Air Force Base flight line telling those around him he would be a fighter pilot one day.

"I said something like, 'I want to be that guy when I grow up,'" he said.

So when, after years of dedication, he was chosen to fly for the 4th Fighter Wing F-15E Strike Eagle Demonstration Team, he was humbled by the opportunity to tell, through his skills as an aviator, stories that have unfolded for more than a quarter-century.

No combat mission is exactly the same.

But most, thanks to the men and women who take flight in F-15Es and those maintainers on the ground who ensure they can, draw rave reviews from those on the receiving end of Strike Eagle air power.

"At Army and Marine bases, a lot of times, people would come up to you afterwards," Smith said. "They say something like, 'I was deployed. I had an F-15 save my butt. Thanks for what you do.' Right then, it hits home."

"When you start thinking of gas, missiles and bombs, the Strike Eagle is the most versatile fighter out there. So, yeah, I would expect it to be around for a long time."