Father Flew First F-15 Eagles Into Europe, Son Just Flew Them Out
The incredible story of a family history that bookends F-15 Eagle operations in Europe.
The final F-15C/D Eagles assigned to the United States Air Forces in Europe departed British shores on April 27, 2022, headed back to America. The type first arrived in the European theater in 1977, at the height of the Cold War. Since then, the Eagle had stood guard over Europe’s skies with unwavering service, and one Air Force family, in particular, has played an incredible role in bookending this incredible chapter in military aviation history.
Lt Col Todd “Buddha” Pearson is the current commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 493rd Fighter Squadron “Grim Reapers” at RAF Lakenheath, U.K. He led the final four-ship of F-15Cs out of Lakenheath for the seven-hour flight back to the U.S. The unit was the last operator of the F-15C/D Eagle in Europe, and it has been winding up its operations of the type over the last few months as the unit re-equips with the F-35A. As Pearson readied the “Reapers” team to ferry the squadron’s last four F-15Cs back stateside in late April, he told The War Zone his incredible family history and association with the F-15 — Pearson’s father had brought the very first Eagles to Europe some 45 years before.
“My Dad flew the first F-15As into Europe in 1977, and I will fly the last Eagle back out in 2022,” Buddha told The War Zone shortly before the final departure. “He was part of Project Ready Eagle, which brought the first waves of Eagles to join the 36th Tactical Fighter Wing [TFW] at Bitburg, Germany. Unlike the F-35 re-equipping here at Lakenheath now, which is bringing jets in a few at a time, back then they flew the Eagles into Europe 12 at a time!” The first F-15As arrived at Bitburg in April 1977, and at the center of this effort was the then Capt Wilbert D. "Doug" Pearson Jr., Buddha’s father.
Doug Pearson is one of the USAF’s most famous fighter pilots, with an incredible career including being the first and only USAF pilot to shoot down a satellite. He flew F-4E Phantom IIs in combat during the Vietnam War on his first assignment, which was with the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Korat in Thailand. He then moved to the 22nd TFS at Bitburg as an instructor pilot on the F-4E, then converted to the F-15A and moved across to the resident 53rd TFS and remained at Bitburg until August 1978.
Pearson left Bitburg with his family, including a young Todd, to join the F-15 operational test world at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He went through Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California, in 1982, flew the F-4, F-5, and the Northrop F-20 Tigershark as a test pilot before joining the Anti-Satellite Combined Test Force from 1985-1987, including the famous test firing of the ASM-135 on September 13, 1985.
On that day, Doug flew an F-15A from Edwards AFB, Calif., to a point some 200 miles west of Vandenberg AFB, Calif. Then, while traveling at Mach 1.2, he pitched the fighter upward into a 65-degree climb, and at an altitude of exactly 38,100 feet, the F-15 automatically launched the experimental two-stage ASM-135 missile. The missile streaked through the stratosphere and into space, slamming into an obsolete military observation satellite some 345 miles above the Pacific Ocean. In that moment, Pearson became the first pilot ever to shoot down a space target. Never again has the Air Force fired a missile at a satellite.
Doug later commanded the 6512th Test Squadron at Edwards and later the Air Force Flight Test Center, before retiring from active duty as a Major General on January 1, 2005, to join Lockheed Martin as the vice president of the F-35 Integrated Test Force.
“There's a lot of emotions associated with winding up F-15 Eagle operations in Europe,” said Buddha. “I was born and grew up at Bitburg and I was on the ramp when Dad arrived with those first Eagles. I don’t really remember that specific day, but I was there and apparently I was pretty enthused about it all.”
“Living at a main Eagle base, then moving to Nellis and having that first-hand exposure and being up close to them all the time, for me there was no way not to fall in love with fighters – it fuelled a passion. There has always been a special place in my heart for the F-15, and it became even more special when I was lucky enough to be selected to fly the F-15 as well!”
Buddha started out his USAF career as a maintainer on F-15E Strike Eagles at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, before being selected for pilot training and selected for fighters and the F-15. He completed the F-15 Basic (B) Course at Tyndall AFB, Florida, in 2006 and joined the 390th Fighter Squadron “Wild Boars” at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. After a period of flying T-38s as an instructor he returned to the F-15C/D and arrived at Lakenheath in August 2017 to join the “Grim Reapers” and then took command of the unit in May 2021. Today he has just shy of 1,700 flight hours in the Eagle.
It was during his time with the “Wild Boars” at Mountain Home that Buddha had an incredible opportunity to revisit history when he was invited to fly the exact same F-15A that his father launched the ASM-135 “satellite-killer” missile from some 22 years before. F-15A serial 76-0084 undertook what was known as the “Celestial Eagle Flight" back on September 13, 1985. By 2007, the aircraft was assigned to the Florida Air National Guard’s 125th Fighter Wing's Alert Detachment at Homestead Air Reserve Base.
The idea of a Celestial Eagle remembrance flight piloted by Buddha was born. "We talked about the possibilities of bringing Todd down here to fly, and it really brought back a flood of memories," said Maj Gen (ret’d) Doug Pearson at the time. Celestial Eagle was painted on the nose of 76-0084, and Buddha’s name was painted on the side of the cockpit. He was even wearing the same patch on his left shoulder that his father Doug wore for the actual test flight in 1985.
In a news release at the time, Buddha commented: "I've always been an aviation 'buff,' and I've wanted to fly Eagles since I was three because my dad flew them. The flight was a significant event in military aviation history, and I'm glad that I've been able to be a part of this 22 years later."
Back to the present day, while F-15C/Ds still remain active today with the Air National Guard, the USAF — aside from the Air National Guard — has whittled down active duty F-15C/D operations to just three units: the 493rd FS “Grim Reapers” at Lakenheath, and both the 44th and 67th FS at Kadena, Japan. While two squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles will remain at Lakenheath, the 493rd FS is re-equipping with F-35As alongside the 495th FS “Valkyries,” which is well advanced with its reactivation with the F-35A.
Ever since those first F-15As arrived at Bitburg in 1977, the Eagle has been a bastion of air defense in Europe. Bitburg’s complement of three F-15 squadrons were joined in 1978 by the 32nd Fighter Group at Soesterberg, Netherlands, which operated a single squadron of Eagles. From 1985-1993 the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Keflavik, Iceland, flew the F-15C/D as part of Air Forces Iceland under Tactical Air Command.
Following the end of the Cold War and then Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the USAF dramatically scaled back F-15 numbers in Europe. Bitburg closed in 1994 and the 53rd FS moved with its F-15Cs to Spangdahlem. Meanwhile, the 493rd FS wound up F-111F operations by the end of 1992 and began to receive F-15C/Ds from Bitburg the following year. In 1998, the “Grim Reapers” increased to a 24-jet squadron as the 53rd FS wound up operations at Spangdahlem, and the 493rd Fighter Squadron officially became the last ‘air superiority Eagle’ operators in Europe.
The introduction of two F-35A squadrons at Lakenheath as part of USAFE was the final nail in the coffin for Eagle operations in Europe, despite 45 years of sterling air superiority service. However, as the “Grim Reapers” started winding down F-15 activities, they were to get one final call to action.
As tensions rose in Ukraine amid the threat of a Russian invasion, the 493rd FS was put on alert. Despite having already started to lose pilots and jets back stateside, the squadron was told to deploy east to Poland.
“We were among the first units that were activated as part of the NATO response mission to the Russian invasion,” Buddha explains. “We took eight jets that were unmarked and essentially ready to be transferred back to the Continental US. Since 1977 the F-15 Eagle has stood tall in front of Russia, and here we were again right at the end of the Eagle’s tenure in Europe, called upon to do the same thing once again. It showed the Eagle has remained relevant until the very end.”
For three weeks the “Grim Reapers” flew NATO air policing missions similar to those that they had flown in the Baltics and Iceland in recent years. “It was rather ironic. We were well into our plans to leave Europe, but there we were deploying to Łask – the theater commanders were not ready to let us go just yet. It’s telling of how important the aircraft really is. Contributing like that made the end of the mission here in Europe even more special for us. A lot of people in the Eagle community have come and gone over the years, and we all know that we have completed an important mission of air superiority in Europe,” Buddha reflected.
As Buddha prepared the 493rd FS to ship its final four F-15Cs back to Air National Guard units in the Continental US in April, he described what he expected for what will be his final flight in the Eagle before he too retires. “We plan to take off together, meet up with two or three tankers out of RAF Mildenhall, then head north over Scotland, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. As we approach the U.S., another set of tankers will come and meet us for the rest of the flight to Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts. We will drop off one jet there for the resident 104th Fighter Wing, before taking the remaining jets down to the Florida ANG in Jacksonville.”
Buddha and his fellow Reapers began their historic journey today, Wednesday, April 27th, 2022. Here is exclusive video and photos from the departure:
The departure of the final four F-15C Eagles from Lakenheath closes the final chapter on a remarkable airpower story, with the Pearson family having played a fundamental role in bookending 45 years of air superiority over Europe.
“This squadron is simply amazing,” concludes Buddha. “The operations tempo here at Lakenheath is unlike anywhere else. Over the last few years here we’ve deployed around Europe and we’ve been out to the Middle East, while also watching the re-emerging threat from Russia. The pilots, maintainers, and support personnel are all in lockstep with each other and it’s been an absolute privilege to have been part of it.”
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com