F15 Low Level

Military aircraft using the USA Low Flying System

A brief description of the more commonly seen military aircraft, photographed in the USA Low Flying System.

Northrop T-38 Talon

The Northrop T-38 Talon is a two-seat, twin‑engine supersonic advanced jet trainer, introduced into service with the United States Air Force in March 1961. The aircraft superseded the subsonic Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star and complimented the subsonic Cessna T-37 Tweet in pilot training.

Powered by two General Electric J85-GE-5 turbojet afterburning engines, the T-38 was the world's first supersonic trainer having a top speed of Mach 1.08 (812mph or 1,307km/h at sea level) a range of 1,093 miles (1,759km) and a maximum ceiling above 55,000ft.

A two-seat tandem cockpit offers the student seated in the front and instructor in the rear a good all‑round view. The aircraft engines are positioned side-by-side, with small air intakes positioned just aft of the cockpit either side of a well-contoured aerodynamic fueslage. The small area main plains are low mounted, as are the tailplanes with a single vertical tail. A tricycle undercarriage retracts into a relatively clean and flat belly.

T-38 Talon low-level through Rainbow Canyon Northrop T-38C Talon of 445th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards A.F.B. United States Air Force.

Most T-38's were of the T-38A variant, but a small number were designated AT-38B which were converted for weapons training. This variant was fitted with a gunsight and could carry a gun pod, rocktes or bombs on a centreline pylon.

Begining in in the year 2000 most T-38A's and T-38B's were being converted to the T-38C as part of an Avionics Upgrade Programme (AUP), which included an all-glass cockpit display, the addition of a head-up display (HUD), Global Positioning System (GPS), Inertial Navigation System (INS) and a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). Many aircraft also received engine modifications under the Propulsion Modernization Programme (PMP), where the engines were modified to enhance reliability and maintainability, while engine inlet/injector modifications increased available take‑off thrust. Airframes with high usage also underwent structural replacements and upgrades, with some receiving new wings to extend their service life to 2029.

Apart from learning aerobatics, formation flying, night instrumentation and cross-country navigation training, the T-38C allows students to learn the advanced systems used in the modern day fighters and bombers onto which they will progress.

Being a versatile and relatively low‑cost aircraft to operate, the T-38 is used as a proficiency aircraft for U-2 and B-2 pilots respectively and also as a training aircraft by test pilots and test engineers at the U.S. Air Force Test Pilots School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Air Force Material Command (AFMC) use the T-38 to test experimental equipment such as electrical weapons systems, while NASA use it as a chase plane and trainer for astronauts and observers.

The T-38 Talon is still in service today (as of 2021) and is the most produced jet trainer, with 1,146 being built between 1961 and 1972.

General Dynamics F‑16 Fighting Falcon

The F‑16 Fighting Falcon originally developed by General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) is a single‑engine supersonic multirole fighter aircraft. Designed as an air superiority day fighter it has evolved into a successful all‑weather multirole aircraft for the United States Air Force (USAF). As‑to‑date (2023) the F‑16 has serve in air forces of 25 other nations and is the most numerous fixed‑wing aircraft in military service. Over 4,600 aircraft have been built since production was approved in 1976. Though no longer purchased by the U.S. Air Force, improved versions are being built for export customers.

The origins of the F‑16 date back to the late 1960's when the United States Air Force had initiated the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) Technology Evaluation programme to look at the concept of a light‑weight fighter, which would be highly manoeuvrable with a hight thrust‑to‑weight ratio. The programme resulted in the development of the General Dynamics YF‑16 (first flight 2nd February 1974) and Northrop YF‑17 (nicknamed ‘Cobra’ - first flight 9th June 1974).

The YF‑16 won the competition, which developed into the F‑16 Fighting Falcon, while the Navy opted for the YF‑17, which developed into the F/A‑18 Hornet.

The LWF programme stipulated an aircraft with a structural life of 4,000 flight hours, capable of achieving 7.33g with 80% internal fuel. General Dynamics designed the F‑16 airframe for a life of 8,000 flight hours and allowing 9g manoeuvres on full internal fuel. This has proved advantageous when the F‑16's mission changed from air‑to‑air combat to multirole operations. However, the changes in operational use and additional systems have increased the aircraft weight, necessitating multiple structural strengthening programmes.

The single‑seat variant was designated F‑16A and first flew on 8th December 1976. The two‑seat variant with a tandem cockpit was designated F‑16B and first flew on 8th August 1977. During training, the F‑16B forward cockpit is used by the student pilot, with the instructor pilot in the rear cockpit. The first operational F‑16A was delivered to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah in January 1979, with the USAF declaring the F‑16A initial operational capability (IOC) in October 1980.

F-16C low-level through Rainbow Canyon General Dynamics F‑16C, Block 40C Fighting Falcon. South Dakota ANG, 114th FW/175th FS.

F‑16 models are denoted by increasing block numbers to denote upgrades, with block numbers covering both single and two‑seat versions. In 1984 the F‑16A and B models were superseded by the F‑16C (single‑seat) and F‑16D (two‑seat) variants, with deliveries beginning at Block 25. The first flight of a Block 25 F‑16C was in June 1984, with the variant entering USAF service in September of the same year.

The F‑16 has a cropped delta‑wing, incorporating wing‑fuselage blending (no clear dividing line between wings and fuselage) and forebody vortex‑control strakes, with a conventional tri‑plane tail assembly with all‑moving horizontal ‘stabilator’ tailplanes and a pair of ventral fins beneath the fuselage aft of the wings trailing edge. The single turbofan jet engine is fed via an underslung air intake and splitter plate. The aircraft has a tricycle landing gear configuration with an aft‑retracting nose gear. There is a boom‑style aerial refuelling receptacle aft of the single‑piece bubble canopy of the cockpit. Split‑flap air brakes are located at the aft end of the wing‑body fairing and a tailhook is mounted underneath the fuselage. A fairing under the tailplane can house ECM equipment or a drag chute.

The F‑16 was the first production fighter designed to be slightly aerodynamically unstable, also known as relaxed static stability (RSS) to improve manoeuvrability. This creates an aircraft which is inherently unstable and wants to depart from controlled flight and without the quadruplex fly‑by‑wire flight control system (FLCS) and flight computer (FLCC) would be impossible to be flown manually. The F‑16 has no mechanical linkages between the pilot's control stick and rudder pedals to the flight control surfaces but relies on electrical systems to relay the flight commands.

The F‑16 was designed to be relatively inexpensive to build and simpler to maintain than earlier‑generation fighters. Advanced aerospace science and proven reliable systems from other aircraft such as the F‑15 and F‑111 were selected. These were combined to simplify the aeroplane and reduce its size and weight, maintenance costs and purchase price.

The light weight of the fuselage is achieved without reducing its strength. The airframe is built with 80% aviation‑grade aluminium alloys, 8% steel, 3% composites and 1.5% titanium. The number of lubrication points, fuel line connections and replaceable modules has been significantly reduced, while the number of access panels which can be accessed without the need of stands has been increased over previous aircraft types.

F-16D low-level through Rainbow Canyon General Dynamics F‑16D, Block 30D Fighting Falcon, USAF 416th FLTS, Edwards Air Force Base.

The cockpit has a single‑piece bird‑proof polycarbonate bubble canopy, providing 360° all‑around visibility, with the pilot sitting in an ACES II zero/zero ejection seat which is reclined at a tilt‑back angle of 30° to help increase g‑force tolerance.The pilot flies the aircraft primarily by means of an armrest‑mounted side‑stick controller (instead of a conventional centre‑mounted stick), an engine throttle and conventional rudder pedals. Critical switches and buttons for the core control of the aircraft are placed on the throttle and stick. This configuration known as hands on throttle‑and‑stick (HOTAS) allows the pilot to perform all the vital functions without having to remove their hands from the controls, which enhances the pilot's degree of control during high‑g combat manoeuvres. Since the introduction of the F‑16, HOTAS controls have become a standard feature on modern fighters.

Flight information is projected onto a head‑up display (HUD) which helps the pilot's situational awareness by keeping their head “out of the cockpit” while additional flight and systems information is displayed on multi‑function displays (MFD). Navigation is provided by a highly accurate enhanced global positioning and inertial navigation system (EGI). Block 40 upgrades added night‑vision goggles (NVG) capability, and Block 50/52 upgrades the Boeing Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) to the pilot's arsenal of tools.

The F‑16 was originally powered by a Pratt & Whitney F100‑PW‑200 afterburning turbofan, but due to issues was replaced by the F100‑PW‑220. This new engine had a Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEEC) unit which improved reliability. As a result of the USAF's Alternate Fighter Engine (AFE) programme (known as the “Great Engine War”) the F100‑PW‑220/220E was introduced and General Electric also became a F‑16 engine provider with its F110‑GE‑100.
Block numbers enable one to distinguish between aircraft equipped with these two engines and their required inlet ducts. From Block 30 series on, blocks ending in “0” (e.g. Block 30) are powered by General Electric and blocks ending in “2” (e.g. Block 32) are fitted with Pratt & Whitney engines.
The latest engines used by the F‑16 are:
Block 50 aircraft ‑ General Electric F110‑GE‑129, producing 17,155 lbf (76.3 kN) at intermediate power and 29,588 lbf (131.2 kN) with full afterburner.
Block 52 aircraft ‑ Pratt & Whitney F100‑PW‑229, producing 17,800 lbf (79.2 kN) at intermediate power and 29,160 lbf (129.7 kN) with full afterburner.

The F‑16 has a top speed of 1,500mph (Mach 2 at altitude), service ceiling above 50,000ft and a ferry range of over 2,0002 miles (1740 nautical miles). The aircraft can carry various air‑to‑air, air‑to‑ground missiles, rockets or bombs, electronic countermeasures (ECM), navigation, targeting or weapons pods and fuel tanks on nine hardpoints ‑ six under the wings, two on the wingtips and one under the fuselage. Two additional locations under the fuselage are available for sensor or radar pods. The aircraft also has an internal M61 20mm Vulcan cannon with 500 rounds located in the port side wing root.

McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C & D Hornet

In the early 1970's the United States Navy under the ‘Naval Fighter-Attack Experimental’ (VFAX) programme was looking to procure a multirole combat aircraft to replace the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, Vought A-7 Corsair II and McDonnell Douglas F‑4 Phantom II's. Also the Navy's primary air superiority fighter//fleet defence interceptor, the Grumman F‑14 Tomcat, though very capable was a very expensive aircraft to operate and Congress had mandated that the Navy pursue a lower cost alternative.

Around the same time, the United States Air Force had initiated the ‘Lightweight Fighter’ (LWF) Technology Evaluation programme to look at the concept of a light-weight fighter, which would be highly manoeuvrable with a high thrust‑to‑weight ratio. The programme resulted in the development of the General Dynamics YF‑16 and Northrop YF‑17 (Cobra).

The Navy was directed to evaluate the two aircraft and though the single-engine YF‑16 won the LWF competition and went into service with the Air Force as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the Navy opted for the twin-engine YF‑17 after Northrop teamed with McDonnell Douglas to produce a heavily re-designed version called the F/A-18 Hornet. The F/A-18 designation means the aircraft was designed to be both a fighter and an attack aircraft. The single‑seat variant was designated F/A-18A and the two-seat variant, F/A-18B. The two-seat F/A-18B was designed to be fully combat-capable, but was used primarily for training.

F/A-18C Hornet low-level through Rainbow Canyon McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet of VMFA-232 ‘Red Devils’, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, United States Marine Corps.

The F/A-18 Hornet first flew in November 1978, entering service with the United States Navy in November 1983 and the United States Marine Corps in January 1984, with the aircraft becoming the Navy's main fighter aircraft as the F‑14 Tomcat was relegated to the interceptor role.

The F/A-18 though similar in appearance to the YF-17 with its canted vertical stabilizers is a vastly different aircraft. The airframe and landing gear are strengthened, with the addition of wing-fold mechanisms, a tailhook and catapult attachments for carrier operations. The aircraft is highly manoeuvrable, with its two General Electric F404-400 engines giving a high thrust‑to‑weight ratio. The engines were designed with operability, reliability and maintainability first and though their performance is unexceptional, they are robust and resistant to stall and flameout. A digital fly‑by‑wire control system with quadruple redundancy (the first to be installed in a production fighter) and leading‑edge extensions (LEX) allow the aircraft to remain controllable at high angles of attack.

The Hornets primary missions are fighter escort, fleet air defence, suppression of enemy air defences, air interdiction, close air support and aerial reconnaissance. The aircraft has a head-up display and multi-function CRT displays, the latter which allow the pilot to easily transition between fighter or attack roles, or perform both.

The Hornet can carry a variety of bombs and missiles, including air‑to‑air and air‑to‑ground ordnance, supplemented by a 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon.

In 1987 McDonnell Douglas (the prime contractor) introduced the single‑seat F/A-18C and two-seat F/A-18D (the latter can be configured for training or as an all-weather strike aircraft). The F/A-18C and D had upgraded radar, avionics, improved night attack capabilities and the capacity to carry a new range of air‑to‑air and air‑to‑ground missiles, while uprated F404‑GE‑402 engines gave a 10% increase in static thrust.

The F/A‑18 has a top speed of Mach 1.8 (1,190mph or 1,914km/h) at 40,000ft (12,200m) with a range of 1,089nm (2,017km). The aircraft has nine hardpoints, two on the wingtips, four underwing and three under the fueslage, with a capacity of 13,700lb (6,200kg) for external fuel or ordnance.

The F/A-18 Hornet saw combat during the 1986 bombing of Libya, the 1990/1991 Gulf War, the 2003 Iraq War, the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Though the United States Navy retired the F/A-18C from combat roles in April 2018, the United States Marine Corps plan to use the F/A-18C/D till the 2030's, when it will be replaced by the F-35B and F-35C.

Boeing F/A-18E & F Super Hornet

The Super Hornet is a twin‑engine, carrier‑capable, multirole fighter aircraft.
Designed and initially built by McDonnell Douglas (now a part of the Boeing Company after the merger in August 1997) the Super Hornet first flew in November 1995, with full production beginning in September 1997. The aircraft entered service with the United States Navy in 2001, working alongside the existing F/A-18C/D ‘Legacy’ Hornet and as a replacement for the Grumman F‑14 Tomcat which was retired in 2006.

The single seat version of the Super Hornet is known as the F/A-18E and the two‑seat version the F/A-18F, the latter having a second crew member in the role of Weapons Systems Officer (WSO).

F/A-18E Hornet low-level through Rainbow Canyon Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet of VFA‑147 ‘Argonauts’, Strike Fighter Squadron, United States Navy.

Though similar in appearance to the ‘Legacy’ Hornet, the Super Hornet is larger with a heavier maximum weight, but has fewer parts and lower maintenance demands. The aircraft incorporates radar cross‑section reduction measures, notably at the front and rear of the aircraft. The design of the engine inlets reduce the aircraft's frontal cross‑section, while the use of perforated panels which appear opaque to radar waves at the frequencies used, replace grilles covering various exhaust and inlet ducts. The fuselage has been stretched by 34in (86cm) to make room for more fuel and avionics upgrades. The aircraft can carry 33% more fuel, increasing mission range by 41% and endurance by 50%. The wing area has been increased by 25% with two extra wing hardpoints for payload (for a total of 11), retaining hardpoints on the bottom centreline, wingtips and two conformal fuselage positions.

Re‑designed large rectangular air intakes increase airflow into new General Electric F414‑GE‑400 turbofans, which produce 22,000lbs maximum thrust, an increase of 35% over the ‘Legacy’ Hornet which enable the Super Hornet to match the C/D models top speed of Mach 1.8 (1,190mph or 1,915km/h) at 40,000ft (12,190m).

The Super Hornet has an internal 20mm M61 rotary cannon and can carry a variety of air‑to‑air missiles and air‑to‑surface weapons and can return to an aircraft carrier with a larger load of unspent fuel and munitions than the ‘Legacy’ Hornet. This load which is known as ‘bringback’ is in excess of 9,000lbs (4,100kg). Unlike the ‘Legacy’ Hornet, the Super Hornet can also be configured as an airborne tanker by adding an external air refuelling system.

Initially the Super Hornet retained the mission software and majority of avionics found in the C/D models, but this has been upgraded significantly over time, such as the aircrafts defensive countermeasures and radar system. The Super Hornet has a quadruplex digital fly‑by‑wire system as well as a digital flight‑control system that can detect and correct battle damage. In the cockpit differences include a colour digital map, a touch‑sensitive control display, a larger multi‑purpose liquid crystal colour display which shows tactical information, two monochrome displays and a new engine fuel display. In May 2007 the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System ((JHMCS) was introduced which provides multi‑purpose situational awareness and high‑off foresight missile cueing.

As the Super Hornet is significantly heavier than the ‘Legacy’ Hornet, the catapult and arresting systems for carrier deck operations must be set differently. To aid safe flight operations and avoid confusion in radio calls, the Super Hornet is unofficially referred to as the ‘Rhino’ to distinguish it from the earlier C/D models.

In 2020 the United States Navy Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron which had flown the ‘Legacy’ Hornet since 1984 transitioned to the Super Hornet.

Boeing EA-18G Growler

The Growler is an American carrier‑based electronic warfare aircraft, a specialised version of the two‑seat F/A‑18F Super Hornet. The aircraft has crew of two, with the second crew member being an Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO).

The first test aircraft known as an EA‑1 made its maiden flight in August 2006. Production started of the type in 2007 with the aircraft entering operational service with the United States Navy in September 2009, eventually replacing the Northrop Grumman EA‑6B Prowler which was retired from service in June 2015.

Boeing EA-18G Growler low-level through Rainbow Canyon Boeing EA-18G Growler of VAQ‑142 ‘Gray Wolves’, Electronic Attack Squadron, United States Navy.

The Growler has more than 90% in common with the F/A‑18F Super Hornet, such as the airframe, radar and weapons systems. The flight performance being similar also allows the Growler to perform escort jamming, as well as the traditional standoff jamming missions (radar jamming and deception) and the ability to accompany Super Hornets during all phases of an attack mission.

The aircraft has nine weapons stations free (six under the wing and three under the fuselage) to provide additional weapons or jamming pods, but most of the dedicated airborne electronic attack equipment is mounted on the aircrafts wingtips and in the space which was occupied by the internal 20mm canon.

The AN/ALQ‑218 wide band receivers on the wingtips, the underwing mid‑board pylon mounted AN/ALQ‑99 high‑band jamming pods and the centreline fuselage mounted AN/ALQ‑99 low‑band jamming pod are able to provide detection and jamming against all known surface‑to‑air threats.

Under the fuselage the two multi‑mode conformal stations can hold AIM‑120 AMRAAM missiles, with the remaining inboard underwing pylons available for 480 gallon fuel tanks, with the outboard pylons reserved for AGM‑88 HARM missiles.

McDonnell Douglas F‑15 Eagle

The F‑15 Eagle is an American twin‑engine, all‑weather tactical fighter aircraft designed by McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing). The aircraft which has been in service since the early 1970's is considered to be the most successful modern fighter aircraft, with over 100 victories (majority of victories by the Israeli Air Force) and no losses in aerial combat.

The origins of the F‑15 Eagle date back to the USAF's need for a dedicated air superiority fighter after the losses suffered during the Vietnam war. Fighters of that era had been designed to engage opponents using air‑to‑air missiles launched at range and it was assumed that close‑range dogfighting was a thing of the past. But there was a serious issue with the reliability and performance of the air‑to‑air missiles of the time. Over one‑half of the missiles fired by the USAF during the Vietnam war malfunctioned and those that did work only had a hit ratio of 1:11. As a result, jets like the F‑4 Phantom which had been built without an internal cannon and lacked the manoeuvrability of their more agile opponents, such as the MiG‑17 and MiG‑21, found themselves at a serious disadvantage in slow‑speed turning fights.

Due to the unacceptable losses in Vietnam, it was realised that a dedicated air superiority fighter was needed. The fighter would need to be fast, have a powerful radar, carry a large complement of air‑to‑air missiles, have a gun and be highly manoeuvrable for close‑range fighting with other jets.

In 1965, the Department of Defence Research and Engineering bagan studies for an F‑X (meaning “Fighter, Unknown’ designation number ‑ not “Fighter‑Experimental” as sometimes misinterpreted).

The necessity for a dedicated air superiority fighter was further enhanced in 1967 when Russia revealed the MiG‑25 Foxbat, a high‑speed, high‑altitude interceptor. The MiG had similar design qualities as proposed for America's F‑X fighter programme. With a top speed of Mach 2.8 and a large wing area, the American's were worried that not only was it very fast, but it was highly manoeuvrable, making it superior to the F‑X. As a result, efforts were made to improve the F‑X design.

(The American's were later to discover the MiG‑25 was not the aircraft they feared it to be, when in September 1976 Lt. Victor Belenko defected, by flying his MiG‑25 from Chuguyevka Air Base, north of Vladivostok, to Hakodate Airport in Japan. American analysts soon determined that the MiG‑25, though very fast, was no dogfighter and that it had been designed and built for one purpose only: to intercept high‑speed American bombers).

In September 1968, the USAF High Command and Tactical Air Command (TAC) eventually agreed that a pure air superiority fighter was required over a multipurpose aircraft and a request for proposals was released to aerospace companies. The requirements called for a single‑seat, twin‑engine fighter, having a maximum take‑off weight of 40,000 pounds (18,000kg) for the air‑to‑air role, with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5 and a thrust‑to‑weight ratio of nearly 1:1 at mission weight.

In December 1969 it was announced that McDonnell Douglas was awarded the winning design. The first flight of the new fighter, designated F‑15A‑1 (Serial No. 71‑0280) was made in July 1972 and a two‑seat training version, F‑15B‑1 (Serial No. 71‑0290 ‑ formerly designated a TF‑15A) in July 1973. Between 1972 to 1979, 384 F‑15A's and 61 F‑15B's were built.

In November 1974 the first operational F‑15 was delivered to the 555th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron at Luke Air Force Base (AFB), Arizona, where training began on both the F‑15A and F‑15B aircraft. In January 1976 the first F‑15 destined for a combat squadron was delivered to the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB, Virginia.

F-15A Eagle at Pima Air & Space Museum McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle at the Pima Air & Space Museum, Tuscon, Arizona, USA.
Displayed in the markings of the 325th Tactical Fighter Wing, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.

The F‑15 Eagle has an all‑metal semi‑monocoque, flat, wide fuselage, that also provides an effective lifting surface, to which is attached a large‑cantilever shoulder‑mounted wing. The tail assembly has two vertical stabilizers with all‑moving horizontal stabilizers that can move independently of one‑another to provide roll in some flight manoeuvres. The aircraft has a spine‑mounted airbrake and retractable tricycle landing gear.

Propulsion on the F‑15A and F‑15B was supplied by two mounted side‑by‑side Pratt & Whitney F100‑PW‑100 afterburning turbofan engines, fed by intake ramps. Each engine was rated at 14,690 lbf (65.3 kN) military power and 23,930 lbf (106.4 kN) in full afterburner, giving the aircraft a top speed of 1,875mph (Mach 2.5 plus) and maximum ceiling of 65,000ft (19,697m).

The F‑15 Eagle cockpit is mounted high in the forward fuselage with a one‑piece windscreen and large canopy for increased visibility, allowing a 360‑degree field of view. The pilot has hands on throttle‑and‑stick (HOTAS) and a head‑up display (HUD) which displays continuous attitude, altitude, heading, airspeed and targeting symbols for weapons launch. The APG‑63 pulse‑Doppler radar, heavily automated, could look up at high‑flying targets and down at low‑flying targets without being confused by ground clutter.

The F‑15A was armed with: One internally mounted M61A1 20mm six‑barrel rotary cannon with 938 rounds of ammunition; four AIM‑7F Sparrow radar‑guided missiles and four AIM‑9 Sidewinder heat‑seeking missiles carried externally. It could also be armed with Mk. 82 500lb or Mk. 84 2,000lb bombs.

In September 2009 the last F‑15A was retired from the Oregon Air National Guard (ANG), marking the end of service life for the F‑15A and F‑15B in the United States.

In June 1979 the new single‑seat F‑15C and two‑seat F‑15D models began entering service. Though externally identical to the A and B models, they had significant changes to the internal systems. Between 1979 and 1985, 483 F‑15C's and 92 F‑15D's were built.

F-15C Eagle low flying through Rainbow Canyon McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle of the 144th FW/195th FS ‘Griffins’ California Air national Guard.

The new models had the Production Eagle Package (PEP 2000) improvements, which included 2,000lb (900kg) additional fuel, provision for carrying external conformal fuel tanks and an increased maximum take‑off weight up to 68,000lbs (30,600kg). The undercarriage was strengthened accordingly. The biggest change was to the APG‑63 radar, which was improved by a Programmable Signal Processor (PSP), the first of its kind, which enabled the radar to be reprogrammable for the addition of new armaments and equipment.

Additional improvements continued with the F‑15 Multistage Improvements Programme (MSIP) initiated in February 1983, with the first production MSIP F‑15C introduced in 1985. Improvements included an upgraded central computer, a programmable Armament Control Set which allowed for the use of more advanced air‑to‑air missiles such as the AIM‑7 Sparrow, AIM‑9 Sidewinder and AIM‑120. (The AIM‑120 or AMRAAM is a beyond visual‑range air‑to‑air missile capable of all‑weather day‑and‑night operations. Unlike previous generation Sparrow missiles, it is a fire‑and‑forget missile, where no guidance is needed from the firing aircraft). Updates were also made to the Tactical Electronic Warfare System that provided improvements to the radar warning receiver and electronic countermeasures (ECM) jamming system.

In 1986, due to reliability, maintenance costs and service life of the Pratt & Whitney F100‑PW‑100 engines, the new Pratt & Whitney F100‑PW‑220 engine was introduced and began to be installed or gradually replaced on all new F‑15's. The new engine incorporated a digital electronic engine control (DEEC) which integrated a variety of engine functions to improve performance and extend engine life. Rated at 14,590 lbf (64.9 kN) military power and 23,770 lbf (105.7 kN) in full afterburner the F100‑PW‑220 engine has slightly less thrust than the F100‑PW‑100 engine, but has greater dynamic thrust across most of the power envelope which can propel the aircraft to a maximum speed of Mach 2.54 (1,650mph or 2,655km/h) at high altitude and Mach 1.2 (921mph or 1,482km/h) at sea level.

In 2007 some F‑15C's were equipped with the Joint Helmet‑Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS). In the latter years of production the last 43 F‑15C's built were upgraded with the APG‑70 radar and later the APG‑63(V) radar. The APG‑63(V1) radar provided an increase in reliability and performance, being able to track 14 targets simultaneously, while being able to simultaneously attack 6 of those.

The F‑15C has a combat range of 1,221 miles (1,965km) for interdiction missions and with conformal fuel tanks and three external fuel tanks a ferry range of 3,500 miles (5,600km). Armament consists of: One internally mounted M61A1 20mm six‑barrel rotary cannon with 940 rounds of ammunition; four AIM‑9 Sidewinder heat‑seeking missiles and four AIM‑7 Sparrow radar‑guided missiles, or a combination of AIM‑9, AIM‑7 and AIM‑120 beyond visual‑range air‑to‑air missiles carried externally.

The USAF (as of April 2023) still operates the F‑15C/D, though its role is gradually being replaced by the F‑35 Lightning II.

Other F‑15A/B/C/D operators:
• Israeli Air Force (IAF) has operated F‑15's since 1977. The IAF has 84 F‑A/B/C/D/I aircraft in service as of 2022.
• Japan Air Self Defense Force has operated Mitsubishi F‑15J (single‑seat) and F‑15DJ's (two‑seat trainer) variants since 1981. The aircraft are produced under license by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
• Royal Saudi Air Force has operated F‑15C/D's since 1981.

Lockheed Martin F‑35 Lightning II

The Lockheed Martin F‑35 Lightning II, is an American fifth‑generation, single‑seat, supersonic, single‑engine, all‑weather stealth multirole fighter, designed to perform ground‑attack and air superiority missions. It can also provide electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. The F‑35 is produced in three different versions, with the primary users being the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. It is also exported.

The F‑35 Lightning, has the most advanced computers and networking abilities as‑to‑date of any aircraft to take to the air. Its advanced sensors and mission systems with stealth capability, enable it to operate undetected in hostile airspace. Integrated sensors, sensor fusion and data linking provide the pilot with unprecedented situational awareness, who is then able to share information gathered by the aircraft with other platforms using secure data links and/or use the information to employ weapons or electronic means.

F-35A low-level through Rainbow Canyon Lockheed Martin F‑35A Lightning II of 31st Test & Evaluation Squadron, United States Air Force.

The F‑35 Lightning is the product of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, which originated from several U.S. military programmes conducted during the 1980's and 1990's. The focus of these early programmes included: Finding a stealthy replacement for the U.S. Navy A‑6 Intruder. Develop a successor to the Harrier jump jet for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.K. Royal Navy. This latter programme had a separate classified programme looking into a stealthy supersonic STOVL fighter intended for both the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC). Through these programmes and other cancelled studies emerged the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) programme, which was established in January 1994 to develop aircraft, weapons and sensor technology, with the aim of replacing several disparate U.S. and U.K. aircraft with a single family of aircraft. The programme which was serving the USAF, USMC and USN, was renamed the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme in 1995. The JSF was expected to eventually replace large numbers of multi‑role and strike fighter aircraft, such as the Harrier, F‑16, F/A‑18, A‑10 and F‑117.

Submissions to the JSF competition were made by Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop and Lockheed Martin. Boeing and Lockheed Martin were selected in early 1997 with their concept demonstrator aircraft, designated X‑32 and X‑35 respectively (Lockheed Martin design team were joined by Northrop Grumman and British Aerospace). Each company had to produce two prototypes to demonstrate conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL), carrier takeoff and landing (CV) and short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL).

In October 2001, Lockheed Martin was declared the winner of the JSF competition with their X‑35 and was awarded the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) contract, with Pratt & Whitney awarded the development contract for the aircraft engine.

The Lockheed Martin X‑35, now renamed F‑35, was developed in co‑operation with international partners, such as the United Kingdom (which joined the JAST programme in 1995, becoming the only Tier 1 partner), Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Canada, Australia and Turkey and so became available for export to these countries. The first flight of an F‑35 (F‑35A variant) was made on 15th December 2006.

The F‑35 is produced in three variants:

• F‑35A ‑ Conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant for the U.S. Air Force (introduced into service, August 2016). It is the smallest, lightest version of the F‑35 and the only one to be equipped with an internal cannon. The GAU‑22/A 25mm cannon is designed for increased effectiveness against ground targets, compared to the 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon carried by other USAF fighters. The F‑35A is primarily intended to replace the USAF's F‑16 Fighting Falcon. The aircraft is designed to match the F‑16 in manoeuvrability and outperform it in stealth, payload, range on internal fuel, avionics, operational effectiveness, supportability and survivability.

F-35A low-level through Rainbow Canyon Lockheed Martin F‑35A Lightning II of 422nd Test & Evaluation Squadron, United States Air Force.

• F‑35B ‑ Short takeoff and landing (STOVL) variant (introduced into service, July 2017 with the U.S. Marine Corps). This variant is used by the U.S. Marine Corps and is intended to eventually replace the F/A‑18 Hornet (A, B, C and D‑models) and the AV‑8B Harrier II. The B variant is similar in size to the A variant, but sacrifices about a third of the A variant's fuel volume to accommodate the vertical flight system. The vertical flight system is composed of a thrust vectoring nozzle at the tail of the aircraft, which allows the main engine exhaust to be deflected downwards. At the front of the aircraft behind the cockpit is a Shaft‑Driven Lift Fan (SDLF), which can be engaged with the main engine via a clutch, providing a counterbalancing thrust. Roll control is achieved by diverting unheated engine bypass air through wing‑mounted thrust nozzles, called roll posts.

F-35B low-level through the Lake District Lockheed Martin F‑35B Lightning of No. 207 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

• F‑35C ‑ Carrier variant for the U.S. Navy (introduced into service, January 2018). This variant has larger wings with foldable wingtip sections, larger wing and tail control services for improved low‑speed control, stronger landing gear for the stresses of carrier arrested landings, a twin‑wheel nose gear and a stronger tailhook for use with carrier arrestor cables. The larger wing area allows for decreased landing speed, while increasing both range and payload.

F-35C low-level through Kern River Valley Lockheed Martin F‑35C Lightning II of VX‑9 ‘Vampires’, Air Test & Evaluation Squadron, United States Navy.

The F‑35 is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburner turbofan engine which was derived from the F‑22 Raptor, F119 engine. The engine is rated at 27,000 lbf (120 kN) using military power and 43,000 lbf (182 kN) with full afterburner. The F‑35A uses the F135‑PW‑100 variant, while the F‑35C naval variant uses the F135‑PW‑400 engine built with salt‑corrosion resistant materials. The F135 engine gives all variants a maximum speed of over Mach 1.6, attainable with a full internal payload. The engine gives good subsonic acceleration and enables the aircraft to fly briefly at Mach 1.2 for 150 miles without the use of afterburner. The F135‑PW‑600 variant engine for the F‑35B incorporates a Shaft‑Driven Lift Fan (SDLF) to allow STOVL operations. The system was designed by Lockheed Martin and developed and built by Rolls‑Royce as a subcontractor to Pratt & Whitney.

The F‑35 features a full‑panel width glass cockpit, designed to give the pilot good situational awareness. The main cockpit display is a 20x8 inch panoramic touchscreen, which shows flight instruments, stores management, CNI (communications, navigation & identification) information and integrated caution and warnings. The pilot is seated on a Martin‑Baker US16E ejection seat and controls the aircraft using a right‑hand side stick and throttle (HOTAS). The F‑35 is the first operational aircraft to feature a cockpit speech‑recognition (DVI) system, which is provided by Adacel. Flight and combat information is displayed on the visor of the pilot's helmet, in a helmet‑mounted display system (HMDS). The HMDS, which replaces the standard head‑up display (HUD), gives the pilot all the information, no matter which way he/she is facing. Infrared and night vision imagery can be displayed directly on the HMDS and enables the pilot to see through the aircraft. The helmet also allows the pilot to fire missiles at targets, even when the nose of the aircraft is pointing elsewhere.

The F‑35 has two internal weapons bays with four weapons stations, which can carry a variety of air‑to‑air missiles, air‑to‑ground missiles and a mixture of small diameter bombs and anti‑tank missiles. The internal bays help preserve the aircrafts stealth capabilities and reduce parasitic drag. The aircraft can use six external weapons stations for missions that do not require stealth. These pylons can carry a variety of munitions and larger weapons, such as the AGM‑158 Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missile which would not fit inside the weapons bays.

To date (January 2023), the F‑35 has been exported and in‑service with the following air forces:
United Kingdom (RAF), Australia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway and the Netherlands.

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