USAF: 493rd FS Grim Reapers

493rd FS Grim Reapers

The last Interceptors of USAFE

Report and photos by George Karavantos

May 20, 2022

The 493rd Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the ‘Grim Reapers,’ based in RAF Lakenheath, UK was the only F-15C fighter squadron assigned to the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. On the 27th of April 2022 the remaining four F-15s left Europe on their return home marking the new chapter not only for the 493rd FS but also for USAFE.

History:

The history of the 493rd FS can be traced in the beginning of World War II when it had the role of Light Bombardment Squadron (Nov 1940), with A-18 Shrike II aircraft. Until 1944, the Wing changed several types, from A-18 to A-20 Havoc and later A-35 Vengeance. In 1942 it received the P-40 Warhawk, in 1943 the P-39 Airacobra and in 1944 the P-47 Thunderbolt.

It was deactivated at the end of the War (Nov 1945) and it was reactivated in Jul 10, 1952 with F-84G Thunderjet and in 1954 it received the F-86F Sabre. From 1956, it received the first supersonic aircraft, the F-100 Super Sabre, and in 1960 it left France where it was stationed all this time. Since January 15, 1960, the 493rd FS has been stationed at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom under the command of the USAF 48th Fighter Wing.

In 1971, the squadron started its conversion to the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, with the aircraft being transferred from the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Bentwaters. The conversion to the F-4D took several years, with the last F-100 departing in August 1974. With the arrival of the Phantoms, the F-4s adopted a common tail code of “LK”. This tail code lasted only a few months as in July and August 1972 the 48th Wing further recoded to LN.

The F-4’s service with the squadron was short as they were transferred to the 474th Tactical Fighter Wing at Nellis Air Force Base Nevada. The 474th sent their General Dynamics F-111As to the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and the 347th sent their F-111Fs to the 48th Wing in early 1977. The F-111F stayed at RAF Lakenheath for many years and flew combat missions during operation El Dorado Canyon in Libya in 1986 and during operation Desert Storm in 1991 against Iraq.

In late 1993 – early 1994 the 493rd squadron exchanged its F-111Fs with the F-15C/D Eagles. This marked the first time that the squadron was flying a fighter dedicated to air-to-air combat, after more than 50 years of performing the air-to-ground role. The 493rd Fighter Squadron was reactivated on 1 January 1994.

The unit began working up as a McDonnell Douglas F-15C/D Eagle squadron, receiving their first two jets, F-15C (86-0164) and F-15D (86-0182), on 15 November 1993 from Bitburg Air Base, Germany. The Grim Reapers received the rest of their 18 assigned Eagles from Langley AFB and Eglin AFB, with the last one (86-0160) arriving on 22 July 1994. These were the final production blocks of the F-15C Eagle.

In 1998, the 493rd FS received another six F-15Cs, increasing the squadron size to 24 aircraft. These came from the 53rd Fighter Squadron based at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, which was deactivated.

The year 2014 was a cornerstone in the history of F-15C in Europe. It had been decided that the F-15Cs would leave the European theatre, but the latest developments following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the heightened tensions felt in most Eastern European countries convinced the U.S. Congress that the withdrawal of these fighters could have detrimental effect to the stability of the region, postponing the plan indefinitely.

On 27 April 2022, the 493rd’s last four F-15Cs (86-0160, 86-0171, 86-0172 and 86-0178) departed RAF Lakenheath for the United States.

48th FW (Liberty Wing) – “ex-Eagle Country”

The 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath is arguably the most potent aerial fighting force in the whole of Europe. Equipped with the McDonnell-Douglas (now Boeing) F-15C/D Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle and now with the state of the art Lightning II, the 48th FW is capable of projecting global air power wherever needed and at a moment’s notice.

The 48th FW was the last remaining U.S. Fighter Wing and one of only two frontline U.S. Air Force units still flying the F-15C/D version of the Eagle (the other being the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan).

The 48th FW was comprised of three fighter squadrons, the 493rd Fighter Squadron equipped with the F-15C Eagle and deployed in the air superiority role, along with the 492nd FS (The Madhatters) and 494th FS (The Panthers), both flying the two-seat F-15E Strike Eagle.

Liberty Wing’s ‘MiG-Killers’

Noticeable amongst the 493rd Fighter Squadron aircraft are seven F-15Cs with ‘kills’ accredited to them. Three of the unit’s aircraft (86-0156, 86-0159 and 86-0169) were assigned to the 493rd Fighter Squadron when claiming their ‘kills’, whilst the others (84-0010, 84-0015, 84-0019 and 84-0027) served with Bitburg’s 53rd Tactical Fighter Squadron at the time.

84-0027 carries two green stars beneath the canopy, signifying the shooting down of a Libyan Mirage F1 and MiG-23. The two aircraft were shot down on 19th January 1991 when this particular F-15 was assigned to the 53rd TFS at Bitburg, Germany.

Four kills were achieved in the space of three days during Operation Allied Force, whilst operating as the 493rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (493 EFS) from Cervia Air Base, Italy, during the first 72 hours of the war. The first kill was achieved on 24th March 1999 when Lt. Colonel Cesar ‘Rico’ Rodriguez (veteran from the Gulf War) shot down a Serbian Air Force MiG-29 over Bosnian air space.

Flying in 86-0169 as ‘Knife 13’, he engaged the aircraft with an AIM-120 AMRAAM, adding to two previous kills gained during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when he successfully engaged a MiG-23 and another MiG-29 whilst assigned to the 33rd Tactical Fighter Squadron/33rd Tactical Fighter Wing.

During the same night Cpt. Michael “Dozer” Shower, flying as ‘Edge 61’ in 86-0159, fired 2 AIM-120 missiles at 37.000ft to shoot down another MiG-29. The two pilots of the Serbian MiG-29s serialed 18112 and 18111 from 127 Fighter Squadron, were Maj. Ilijo Arizanov (18112) and Maj. Nebojsa Nikolic (18111), both of whom ejected from their aircraft safely.

Two days later, Capt. Jeffery ‘Claw’ Hwang scored two more Serbian MiG-29 kills whilst flying in 86-0156 as ‘Dirk 21’. As with the two previous kills by his colleagues two days earlier, Hwang took out both aircraft with AIM-120s. The two aircraft shot down were serialed 18113 & 18114, flown by Lt Col. Slobodan Peric (18114, who ejected and survived) and Capt. Zoran Radosavljevic (18113, who sadly died in the incident).

Of the aircraft detailed above, 86-0169 is the only aircraft that is no longer extant, having been lost in an accident on the 26th March 2001.

Of the other four aircraft mentioned, 84-0010 shot down an Iraqi Sukhoi Su-22 on 22nd March 1991 whilst with the 53rd TFS, 84-0015 was credited with a ‘kill’ on a PC-9 after the pilot bailed out on 22nd March 1991 whilst with the 53rd TFS, 84-0019 scored two Iraqi Air Force Sukhoi Su-25s on 6th February 1991 whilst operating with the 53rd TFS and 84-0027 shot down an Iraqi MiG-23 and a Mirage F1 on 19th January 1991, again operating with the 53rd TFS.

Awards:

The squadron has earned multiple commendations and awards, including the Air Force Association’s Hughes Trophy in 1997 and 1999.

In 2007 it received the Raytheon Trophy, being recognized as the best fighter squadron in the USAF.

In January 2015, the squadron was named again the best fighter squadron in the Air Force, earning the Raytheon Trophy for 2014.

On 13 May 2017, the 493rd FS were awarded the 2016 Raytheon Trophy at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.

In April 2020, the Grim Reapers were awarded the 2019 Raytheon Trophy.

Losses:

  • On 3 August 2000, F-15C 86-0173 was written off after crashing 13 miles NE of Rachel, Nevada, during a Green Flag Exercise – the pilot safely ejected.
  • On 26 March 2001, two F-15Cs from the 493rd FS (86-0169 and 86-0180) crashed into Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms mountain range, both pilots died in the crash.
  •  On 8 October, F-15D 86-0182 crashed near Weston Hills, Lincolnshire, after entering a flat spin – the pilot ejected safely.
  • On 15 June 2020, F-15C 86-0176 crashed into the North Sea during

a training mission, killing the pilot.

Recent Assignments:

The squadron participated in Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya in March 2011, along with numerous deployments to Southwest Asia supporting air expeditionary units as part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism and as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February 2014, the Grim Reapers deployed to Šiauliai Air Base, Lithuania, in less than 20 hours, to supplement the Baltic air policing mission.

In February 2019, the squadron’s F-15Cs had just two weeks notice to deploy to Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE, for Operation Inherent Resolve, to fill the air superiority role vacated by Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors of the 94th Fighter Squadron that returned home in October 2018 in an effort to increase the Raptor fleet’s readiness. From mid-April, the 493rd EFS operated in tandem with Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs of the 4th Fighter Squadron, before returning home in July 2019.

In October 2020, 14 F-15C/Ds deployed to Keflavik Air Base, Iceland, as part of NATO’s Icelandic Air Policing mission. From 5 and 21 May 2021, 12 F-15C/Ds participated in Exercise Astral Knight 2021 and Exercise Early Bird at Larissa Air Base, Greece. Between 23 and 27 August 2021, ten F-15C/Ds deployed to RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire, as part of Exercise Agile Liberty 21.

During the prelude to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Grim Reapers deployed eight F-15C/Ds to Łask Air Base, Poland, in February 2022 to perform NATO enhanced Air Policing (eAP). It was the last NATO mission the squadron undertook with the Eagle.

The Eagle:

The McDonnell-Douglas F-15A first flew in 1972, followed by the F-15B in 1973, F-15C and F-15D in 1979 and F-15E in 1986. Over one thousand F-15s were delivered to the Air Force and it still provides service to both USAF and Air National Guard units in considerable numbers, with the intention of providing total air supremacy, it has been proven in a number of conflicts. During the Balkans War, F-15s shot down four Serbian MiG-29s and were responsible for 34 of the 37 kills on fixed-wing aircraft during the first Gulf War.

The F-15 is capable of Mach 2.5 in level flight and can climb at a maximum rate of 50,000 feet per minute, with a service ceiling of 65,000 feet. Powered by the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220, providing 23,770lbs of thrust with afterburner, the F-15C/D has a range of 2,600 nautical miles. With conformal fuel tanks fitted its range is extended to 3,100 Nautical Miles, with endurance in excess of 5 hours.

Air superiority is the name of the game for the F-15C and it has ruled the skies for over 40 years, having achieved Initial Operational Capability (IOC) way back in 1975. The F-15C/Ds of Europe were all upgraded to the latest standards, like the new APG-63(V)3 AESA radar, the new AIM-120D missiles, the Link 16 data link, and the combination of JHMCS helmet and the AIM-9X missile.

The AIM-9X missile’s main improvement over previous AIM-9 models is its compatibility with the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS). The Boeing manufactured JMHCS combines a magnetic head tracker with a display projected onto a pilot’s visor, giving the pilot a targeting device that can be used to aim sensors and weapons wherever the pilot is looking. Using the information displayed in the pilot’s visor, the pilot does not have to be flying towards the target, but just has to look in its direction before missile ‘lock-on’ is achieved.

For targets of around 20 miles or more, pilots would select the supersonic Hughes AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), which is a Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapon. The F-15C Eagle is also fitted with a General Electric M61-A1 20mm Vulcan cannon in the starboard wing-root.

Another major asset to both the upgraded F-15C/Ds was the Rockwell-Collins Joint Tactical Information Data System (JTIDS), also known as ‘Link 16’. JTIDS is a secure, jam-resistant, high-speed digital data link, and is one of the most valuable tools at the disposal of F-15 pilots. JTIDS is a data-link that provides the pilot with a situational report of what other pilots and surveillance aircraft like the E-3 AWACS are seeing, with F-15 pilots having reported a radical increase in situational awareness when using JTIDS.

What the future hold:

The new era for RAF Lakenheath has already started since Wednesday 15 December 2021 when the first four F-35A Lightning IIs were delivered to their new squadron, the 495th Fighter Squadron “Valkyries”. The next batch was delivered on 2 March 2022. Eventually, the 48th Fighter Wing will host two squadrons of F-35As – a total of 48 aircraft – at RAF Lakenheath.

The second Squadron to receive the Lightning IIs will be no other than the 493rd which has already started its preparations to receive these new aircrafts. The two other squadrons (492 & 494) will continue their service with their F-15Es.

The 493rd FS has already been deactivated in preparation to re-equip and reactivate with the F-35A Lightning II. The 493rd’s future F-35A flagship with characteristic serial number 19-5493 left the facilities of Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth in mid-April 2022.

The retired F-15Cs still have “a lot of empty pagers in their logbooks”, since most of them will continue their service in units of the Air National Guard.

Despite its age, the F-15C is still a very capable fighter mastering the air superiority role. Equipped with the upgraded AESA radar APG-63(V)3, equipped with modern missiles like the AIM-120D and the AIM-9X will remain the spear of USAF in this particular role for years to come, until their successor – the “Super Eagle”, F-15EX will take over.

Until then the F-15s will do what they know best: dominate the skies!

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George Karavantos
Photojournalist at Aviation Photography Digest
George Karavantos is from Athens, Greece. His love with military aviation started at the age of 10 when he accidentally read a Greek aviation magazine. Since then, he never stopped reading about fighter aircraft and taking photos of them. He was too tall to become a fighter pilot, so he became an airline pilot. Nowadays he is a Captain and a Flight Instructor on the A320 aircraft. Despite his profession, military aviation will always be his obsession.
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