“Wolfman” (another player) and I are a pair of F-15E “Strike Eagles” operating around Kuwait (both geographically and temporally). Our mission is to strike a Baby-Milk Factory just north of Baghdad. I’m not sure what the process is for milking babies, but we have two 2,000lb MK-84 Ground Pounders on board to put an end to such villainy. Between the two planes we also have a number of AGM-94E SLAMs and a ridiculous number of AIM-120 AMRAAMs in case of bad-guy airplanes.

Iraq has a more robust and aggressive air force in most sims than it really did during Operation Desert Storm. The F-15E is a lot more agile than it should be for the sheer size and weight of the aircraft, owing to its two massive powerplants. Still, we’re loaded up like heavy bombers, so we’re not exactly fit for dog-fighting.

The target is in a city. In addition to AAA and SAMs, Iraqi cities tend to become covered in clouds of small-arms fire when F-15s approach. It’s only dangerous if we fly below the effective floor of radar aiming systems, which means we either need to get pelted by lots of little bullets or be a target for the significantly deadlier SAMs and AAA.

We ingress to the target area low and dark to avoid detection. Skimming along the desert around 500 ft AGL, Wolfman looses sight of us on his Target Acquisition Display. “Hey where’d you go?” he calls.

“I’m below you,” I reply.

“You’re not showing up on the TAD.”

There are several acceptable formations for elements of fighters moving together in close-proximity. “Echelon” is where they form a line at a 45 degree angle to the direction of flight. “Line Abreast” the planes fly making a straight line with their wingtips perpendicular to the direction of flight. “Line Astern” is where they line up single file like kids in a lunch line. We’re in none of those; we’re “vertically stacked.”

“I’m below you.” 250 feet AGL, directly underneath him, it’s part of my audition tape for the Thunderbirds. I see his wingtips wobble as he tries to react to what I’m telling him. “Whatever you do, don’t descend.”

We let him peel off a bit and form up again on him in a “Stacked Echelon.” We stay just far enough away to stay visible on his TAD but low enough to kick up dust. Being so low and keeping our on-board radars in “don’t give away my position” mode, ingress is uneventful. They haven’t detected us, but we haven’t detected them, either – apart from a few air-search radars noisily sweeping the sky above us.

We swing around the west side of Baghdad, turn east, pop up to five thousand feet, and illuminate out radars. Air defense systems start showing up on the TAD. Between us, we launch a half dozen SLAMs, prioritizing SAM and radar emplacements. We blaze by the city at 550 knots, dropping back down to the deck to avoid further detection as the stand-off munitions do their work. Sure enough, the air-search radars drop off of our warning systems.

That’s when the Iraqi Air Force starts popping up. MiGs appear on the TAD rising out of bases to the east and west. A pair of MiGs to the east haven’t even completed their climb out after take off when they’re each struck by an AIM-120 that Wolfman and we have snap-fired. We’re clear enough to the east, but the primary target is west. By the time we come around, four MiGs have completed their takeoffs and are turning our way. They’re 40 miles out, but we’re going to be outnumbered right quick if we dally.

My virtual GIB – Guy In Back – identified the primary target and marked it on our systems when we blew by it during our “softening” pass. Wolfman is down to Air-to-Air munitions, and we’re still loaded with four thousand pounds of high-explosive ballast. The decision is easy. We start plotting a turn to drop bombs on the industrial complex, while Wolfman climbs to engage the MiGs.

Our line up is boring, consisting of basic navigation to get on the cleanest path, climbing to an altitude where we won’t be damaged by our own munitions, and keeping things as un-jarring as I can. Wolfman, on the other hand, pulls G’s, closing ranges with the  MiGs and lobbing AMRAAMs to splash yet another plane that should have stayed in the hangar – real fighter-pilot kind of stuff.

We get within sight of the industrial complex. Our target is one building on the far side of it. AAA starts up in earnest, lines of tracers carve into the sky like a laser-light show. We’re not going to be able to keep this run as flat and level as I’d like. And, just to make sure I’m using my diaper, one of the MiGs from the west is closing on our right wing – he’ll be in range in a few seconds.

“You got one closing on you,” Wolfman lets me know that at least he sees it.

“He’s heading east. I’m heading south. He’s the one further away from you,” I blabber quickly to make sure Wolfman targets the correct airplane. It gets a little confusing when three different warning horns are blaring and the TAD looks like someone knocked over a box of Legos.

“Got it,” he assures us. “FOX-3.” A little white pip appears on the TAD – the AIM-120 – leaves Wolfman’s symbol and heads toward the MiG.

It is one of those rare moments when everything is lined up. Wolfman and his recently released AMRAAM are exactly due east of us. The MiG is precisely due west, and our heading to the target is 180. We’d need a T-Square and drafting tools to make a more perfect right angle. A line of AAA fire ruins the precision by slicing the air and sweeping toward us. I bank left, sharply, to avoid the bullets.

Suddenly there’s a loud bang. The airplane goes from a harsh left bank to a rapid, uncontrollable roll to the right. The “Master Caution” light comes on, and the voice alarm system calmly whines, “Caution, Engine Fire Right. Caution, TF-Fail. Caution. Caution.”

I slam the stick left trying to arrest the roll, instead we start to turn into it. The nose draws a bigger circle as we spin. Despite the engine fire warning, the right engine reads 0-RPM. We’re missing an engine and the wing attached to it.

There is no controlling an airplane that has decided to molt. As long as we have forward speed, the remaining wing continuously provides lift against the main fuselage, keeping us in a continuous roll along the long axis of the plane. There is nothing to do except wait for the canopy to be on the side not facing the ground then pull the ejection handles.

While we’re waiting to exit the airplane, I replay the TAD in my head. Wolfman targeted the MiG. A white dot left his plane, and traveled in a straight line toward the MiG. The white dot disappeared from our TAD as it was too close to us to track separately – a condition called “merged.” We banked to avoid the AAA…

All sims try to track as much as they can, but there exist limits to code and computing power of the era in which they are developed. F-15 Strike Eagle III tracked the position of that AMRAAM to the detail that we had swatted it out of the sky with our wing. An AIM-120 can kill an F-15, but setting off the half ton of high-explosive* hanging on the starboard side had ripped us in half. We turned the premier Air Force strike fighter of the early ’90s into a forty five million dollar single-use tennis racquet.

It’s not the first time Wolfman has shot me down. It’s just the time he didn’t actually (accidentally) target me first.

Sim: Microprose’s F-15 Strike Eagle III
Region: Iraq
Aircraft: F-15E
Base: PSAB


*A conventional MK-84 2,000lb bomb is 1,000lbs of explosive and 1,000lbs of casing waiting to become shrapnel.

In researching this story, I learned that there was, in fact, an F-15 that landed once missing its starboard wing. He still had the engine.