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Shifting Skies Over The Klamath Basin
by U.S. Air National Guard 173rd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
June 4, 2023

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. Penny Snoozy.)
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. Penny Snoozy.)

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.

Whether flying 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 Basin.

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.

But to 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.

Kingsley pilots 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 website.

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 Kingsley tarmac.

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.

Future

Between now and then, Kingsley is in transition.
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.

Overall staffing 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 process.”

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. Bruner said.

“It goes out to 2095. We have built a great relationship with the community, and the lease is a testament to that.”

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 different.”

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 tails.”

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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