Shifting Skies Over The Klamath Basin
by U.S. Air National Guard 173rd Fighter
Wing Public Affairs
The high, fluctuating trill of a bald eagle
pierces the quiet calm of a crisp morning in Klamath Falls. After
several notes, its cry is replaced with the roar of another Eagle,
the F-15C, ripping through the blue sky at supersonic speed.
It is a scene at once familiar and short-lived for residents of the
Klamath Basin, where bald eagles will soon most likely share the
skies not with Eagles ... but with F-35As, according to 173rd Fighter
Wing Commander, Colonel Lee Bouma.
May 17, 2023 - A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft
assigned to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, flies off the wing
of a F-15C Eagle assigned to the 173rd Fighter Wing in the
skies above Southern Oregon. The 173rd FW based out of
Kingsley Field in Klamath Falls, Oregon has been selected as
the Air Force's preferred location for the next F-35A
Lighting II Formal Training Unit, and will begin transition
to the new aircraft once the environmental impact analysis
is complete. (Image created by USA
Patriotism! from U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt.
Eagles and Eagles
Feathered eagles soar high overhead as symbols of freedom in the
Klamath Basin, but so do steel Eagles, which operate out of a
limited number of bases around the country.
alone, in pairs or in small groups, eagles and Eagles alike
constitute an event for the world below. Some residents take them
for granted, but both eagles and Eagles are a sight to behold,
capable of evoking a sense of awe in viewers — even if many locals
get numb to the majesty after a time.
For as long as humans
have called the region home, organic eagles have been the guardians
of the sky, keeping watch over the high deserts, marshes, grasslands
and forests of the region. For the past 25 years, steel Eagles have
shared the same skies, but that changes soon.
In the next
few years, Kingsley Field will see a lot of change, but change won’t
be new to the base.
Ship of Theseus
Kingsley Field began
operations in 1942, received its current name in 1956, and at
different times operated as a Naval Air Station and Active Duty Air
Force Base. In 1983, it became the Air National Guard training base
that is has remained ever since.
The first jets operating
from this new Air National Guard training base, the F-4C , patrolled
our airspace for just five years before being replaced by F-16s,
which operated there for a decade.
In 1998, Kingsley
converted to F-15s, called “Eagles” by many, and these Eagles have
kept watch for more than 25 years — making the F-15 training mission
the longest-running military mission in the history of the Klamath
After 20 years, most Airmen retire. Some last longer,
but the fact that the F-15 training mission at Kingsley has lasted
longer than a typical Air Force career is a testament to the level
of excellence the 173rd Fighter Wing continuously delivers. It is
this longevity and emotional connection with so many generations of
F-15 pilots, their friends, their families and the community as a
whole that will make saying goodbye difficult.
maintain air superiority, Kingsley Field (and the Air Force at
large) must adapt to the times. Despite what the latest iteration of
“Top Gun” might suggest, newer aircraft benefit from the continuous
improvement that deliver superior capabilities to their
predecessors. While the F-15 was considered a fourth-generation
aircraft, the F-35 is a fifth-gen fighter, capable of going
head-to-head with any enemy of peace or threat to national security
in the ever-advancing world.
The aging F-15 fleet is
reminiscent of the “Ship of Theseus,” a thought experiment proposed
by first century Greek philosopher, Plutarch, in which a warship is
retired after a successful career on the high seas. The warship is
put on display to celebrate its legacy. Over time, the boat decays
and is replaced and repaired, piece by piece. Following its slow
reconstruction, Plutarch asks, is it still the same ship?
Some of the F-15s are in a similar position.
have flown jets more than four decades old in recent years, and
despite the best efforts of the “Land of No Slack,” eventually these
aircraft age out of service.
As of April 2023, the oldest
jet in the Kingsley fleet bears Tail No. 78-0492. It entered service
in 1978. At 45 years old, it is a decade older than the average Air
Force officer who might pilot it (35) and older still than the air
crews and other enlisted personnel keeping it operable and
combat-ready (29), according to demographic data on the Air Force
As jets reach a point where maintenance is
untenable, they are slowly divested, which could mean scrapping,
sale to an allied military or even repurposing rather than facing
the fate of the Ship of Theseus.
A logistical game of hot potato
can send individual aircraft hopping from one base to another before
finally being retired, and Kingsley will likely give and receive a
number of F-15s between now and the touchdown of the last F-15 on a
F-15s aren’t just leaving Kingsley, though.
The United States Air Force is slowly retiring F-15s across its
enterprise. At this point, the Air Force has plans to reduce F-15
operations gradually, finally grounding the F-15 fleet as early as
Fiscal Year 2026 and as late as 2030, according to 114th Fighter
Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Tyler Cox.
With a replacement
aircraft already lined up in the F-35, Kingsley will probably cease
F-15 operations sooner than later.
Between now and then, Kingsley is in
In the past decade, the base has held 20-40+ Eagles
at a time, but due to the age of the aircraft, many were inoperable
or otherwise grounded at any given time.
The proposed 20 new
F-35s that will find a home at Kingsley will represent about 1
percent of the F-35 fleet projected to be in operation by 2040, says
Lt. Col. Daniel Parrish, 173rd Fighter Wing Unit Conversion Officer.
With fewer repairs to contend with, an F-35 training program at
Kingsley will likely see more flights than the F-15 program, though
current training volume with the F-15 beats the Air Force average,
Bouma noted in an officer call this spring.
numbers at the 173rd Fighter Wing are expected to stay the same,
though some personnel will be heading back to school to learn the
new aircraft and its systems.
“Some (Airmen) will be sent
away to upgrade for one to two years,” Cox notes, adding “Some will
be sent away to learn to fly the F-35 and then will upgrade to
(instructor pilots) at home station, while some will transition to
the F-35 at Kingsley and then upgrade during the conversion
Retraining for Operations and Maintenance is
inevitable, but many shops on base will operate largely unchanged.
Expect a lot of modernizing and updating facilities and equipment,
but to the outside observer, Kingsley Field will look much the same.
The F-35 mission could last another 25 years, but operations
at Kingsley will likely outlive that aircraft, too, given that the
base owns the “longest lease in the Air National Guard,” Lt. Col.
“It goes out to 2095. We have built a great
relationship with the community, and the lease is a testament to
Though the jet is changing, Kingsley’s current
mission: “Train F-15 pilots, support combat operations, and serve
Oregon … America’s air superiority starts here” will be largely
unchanged even as the F-15 flies into the sunset.
As the sun
sets on the F-15, look up and appreciate the Eagles now and then.
Lt. Col Bruner notes that “The F-35 is roughly the same size as the
F-15, so for the general public, they
won't look significantly
However, Lt. Col. Parrish gave some advice for
aircraft aficionados to distinguish between the outgoing and
incoming aircraft. “The easiest way to tell the difference between
the F-35A and the F-15C is the F-35A has one engine with canted
vertical tails and the F-15C has two engines and straight vertical
Regardless of what aircraft flies overhead, Kingsley
Field will continue to operate with integrity, excellence and
service before self because even though the steel Eagles will soon
fly their last, “America’s air superiority starts here.”
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