Jet 87-173: Innovation keeps Air Force legend in the fight

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Andrew Kobialka
  • 366th Fight Wing Public Affairs

“If only fighter jets could talk, the stories they could tell,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Slocum, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Commander, and a renowned fighter pilot.

Many jets become legends for their heroic feats in battle, but they are unable to tell their stories as they experienced them. Fortunately, legends never tell their own stories.

This is the story of F-15E Strike Eagle, tail number 87-173, where it comes from and how innovation keeps it ready to bring the fight to the enemy.

The U.S. Air Force has held the title of world air superiority for many years, but its lethality was taken to the next level about 30 years ago.

In 1987, a year known for its eccentric artwork, the debut of the show “Full House”, and President Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in West Berlin, a legend was born. Or perhaps, more accurately, it was built.

This Strike Eagle is designed for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. Spanning 64 feet long and 43 feet wide, weighing in at 81,000 pounds when fully loaded, its physical prowess only hints at the capabilities of this jet. It’s mounted with an array of missiles, bombs, a 20mm multi-barrel gun and all the futuristic technology the average Joe probably wouldn’t even begin to imagine. Top it off with a flashy paint job and standing there would be the legend assigned to the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho.

Although jet 173 has flown many missions over its years in service, its most historic happened the night of Nov. 12, 2001, during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Jet 173 was the lead jet in the longest combat sortie by United States fighter aircraft to this day, which was later deemed “The Kabul-ki Dance”.

The pilot of jet 173 was then Capt. Slocum, and the weapon systems operator was then Capt. Paul Knapp, both of whom were members of the 391st Fighter Squadron at the time.

The mission was simple: to destroy the residences of Al Qaeda targets with 500-pound bombs. And that, they did.

But as chance would have it, it quickly turned into an opportunistic back-and-forth flight pattern. Simply put, every time Slocum and Knapp completed a mission and began to head back to base, they were given orders to turn around and take out another target.

This went on for over 15 hours. There were 10 in-air refuelings and they evaded anti-aircraft gunfire and ground-to-air missiles throughout the mission.

In the end, the Kabul-ki Dance resulted in the elimination of several high-priority targets, Al Qaeda residences and the disruption of terrorist movements by bombing a mountainside to create an avalanche that blocked enemy roads.

That mission wrote jet 173 along with the names Slocum and Knapp in the history books. But the legend hasn’t died. It’s still ready to take the fight to the enemy, but not without support and innovation of Airmen from the 389th FS where jet 173 is assigned to today.

“I think it's amazing that the first F-15E models are still in service today almost 34 years later after the first model was delivered to the Air Force,” said Senior Master Sgt. Travis Patterson, 389th FS aircraft maintenance unit superintendent.

Patterson has been maintaining strike eagles for 24 years and is now in charge of the maintenance of jet 173. That being said, the jet has seen more than a few upgrades.

“Jet 173 has been through three very large modifications but most noteworthy is the APG-82 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) Radar Modification Program upgrade,” Patterson said. “The F-15E was designed around the radar and this one can simultaneously detect, identify and track multiple air and surface targets farther than ever before.”

This superior capability greatly increases aircraft and aircrew effectiveness and ultimately increases the chance of survival. In fact, no Strike Eagle has ever been shot down with this technology.

Slocum recently had a chance to fly jet 173 in November of 2019 and recognized the difference in innovation.

“The upgrades in software and technology in the last 18 years is really amazing.” Slocum said. “The weapons we can drop now and the targeting systems available are things we didn’t imagine back when we were flying through the night of Afghanistan in 2001.”

However, Patterson explained that integrating new technologies into an aging airframe does take a significant amount of problem solving.

“We work so hard maintaining these F-15E’s but sometimes it’s like owning a 1966 Volkswagen Bug and trying to install 2020 Tesla technology into it and make it work flawlessly. There can be lots of technical issues that we find out weren’t evident in the initial design. I take great pride when my maintainers solve these complex problems.”

Jet 173 is legend, but it remains that way because of the Airmen behind it.

“It goes to show the evolution of the maintainer,” Patterson said. “As technology advances our Airmen experience new issues and must become better problem solvers because there is no instruction manual. Well not yet, because we’re creating it!”

Jet 173 has always been a superior aircraft, but with each new innovation it becomes more versatile and lethal. It continues to be assigned to missions and, in 2017, it made notable impact in support of Operation Inherent Resolve where it was a part of 389th FS’s release of 5,018 precision guided munitions while deployed in Southwest Asia.

So as jet 173 lives on through the decades it is sure to see history unfold. It will collect more stories that it cannot tell and it might get a new gadget or two. But Slocum, Patterson and thousands of upcoming Airmen will spearhead the innovation that will ensure jet 173 will always complete the mission.