Nestled in the pines along the Neuse River adjacent to the town of Goldsboro, North Carolina, lies Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Established as a technical school when the United States entered World War II, the base is now home to the Fourth Fighter Wing and the 916th Air Refueling Wing.
Seymour has the unique distinction of being the only USAF installation named after a Naval officer, Lieutenant Seymour Johnson. Johnson was a Goldsboro native who became a test pilot in the US Navy, tragically perishing in the 1941 crash of a Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat after running out of oxygen at high altitude.
Just a few months before Lieutenant Johnson’s untimely accident, a group of 3 American volunteers arrived in England to join the ranks of the Royal Air Force, and were designated No. 71 Squadron. Within a year, two additional squadrons were established as more volunteers arrived from the US, eager to help the RAF fight the mighty German Luftwaffe. Known as No. 121 and No. 133 Squadrons, together the three units became known as the “Eagle” squadrons.
When United States entered World War II in December 1941, the Eagle squadrons and their American volunteer pilots had already been flying and fighting the Luftwaffe with British-made Supermarine Spitfires. In a historical move in September 1942, the Eagle squadrons were officially incorporated into the US Army Air Corps as the Fourth Fighter Group–making it the first time such a unit was activated within a theater of war.
In the process, the three Eagle squadrons were renamed the 334th, 335th, and 336th Fighter Squadrons – all of which still exist today within the 4th Fighter Wing. The United States immediately had its own Fighter Group in England, and they proved their mettle on the first mission under the Army Air Corps, downing 4 German Focke-Wulf Fw-190s.
After a yearlong tenure with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, in early 1944 the Fourth transitioned to the North American P-51 Mustang, which it would operate through the end of the war in May 1945. By that time the Fourth Fighter Group had destroyed 1,016 enemy aircraft in over 400 combat sorties, making them the highest scoring US fighter group of the war. They had also been the first to escort bombers over Berlin, and the first to lead the England to Russia shuttle mission, a round-robin bombing mission designed to strike various locations within the European theater.
Fourth But First
A motto of Fourth But First began to emerge, and was justly earned. A few years later the Fourth (now named Fourth Fighter Interceptor Group) found itself engaged in combat yet again, this time with the F-86 Sabre and tangling with MiGs in the skies over Korea. They again came out at the top, racking up 502 enemy aircraft destroyed. While in Korea, Captain James Jabara became the first US jet vs. jet ace – one of 24 4th FIG Korean aces – and would go on finish with a total of 15 kills in Korea.
In December 1957, the Fourth Fighter Interceptor Wing, as it was then known, made a permanent move to a base along the Neuse River in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The Fourth Fighter Wing has called Seymour Johnson home for 60 years–unique among USAF units. In that time, it has converted from the North American F-100 Super Sabre to the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, then to the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II, and finally to its current Mission Design Series: the mighty McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15E Strike Eagle.
The first Dark Gray–a moniker quickly attached to the F-15E because of it’s dark gray paint scheme, arrived in late 1988, and the transition from the Phantom was completed by mid-1991. That milestone signified the Fourth as the first operational Strike Eagle wing. However, before the conversion was finished, the Wing had already conducted combat operations in Iraq during the Gulf War, immediately proving the capability and lethality of the newly-acquired MDS.
An additional squadron, the 333rd Fighter Squadron (the 333FS was originally established at SJAFB) returned to Seymour in 1994. This gave the wing a total of four flying squadrons, broken down into two Formal Training Unit and two operational fighter squadrons. The 4th FW has been involved in numerous combat operations since, with tens of thousands of combat hours and millions of pounds of ordnance dropped in Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and the ongoing Operation Inherent Resolve.
“The F-15E essentially been deployed somewhere in the world since we’ve had Strike Eagles,” says Colonel Richard Dickens, 4th Operations Group Commander. “Our 336th FS is deployed now, and I expect that we’re never going to see an end to Strike Eagles in theater.”
At least not for a while, as the USAF expects to operate the F-15E fleet into the 2040s, and for good reason. The 3 biggest advantages the Strike Eagle brings to the fight, according to Colonel Dickens, are fuel, an extensive combat loadout, and the two-man crew. “We carry a lot of fuel, so we can stay on station or fly long distances just due to the amount of gas we carry.”
Between the internal fuel capacity of an F-15E with conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) and external tanks, the typical fuel load is over 30,000 pounds of fuel. While almost doubling the weight of the aircraft, it still leaves ample opportunity for the Strike Eagle to carry a veritable smorgasbord of kinetic effects.
“We can carry a significant combat load with a variety of weapons,” adds Colonel Dickens. “We can carry numerous Laser-Guided Bombs (LGBs) or GPS-guided weapons, and still have stations left over for missiles–essentially allowing us the ability to self-escort to fight our way in to a target and back out.”
The Strike Eagle is a unique animal in the USAF inventory, as it’s the only tactical fighter employing a 2-person crew.
“Because we have a pilot and a WSO, we have a significant tactical advantage by having one person up front that can manage the aircraft and see and avoid threats to keep us in the bright piece of sky and get the job done, as well as someone in the back that can specifically focus on getting the bomb on target at the precise point of impact – both on time and on target,” Colonel Dickens explained further. “It’s no surprise that we’re a desired platform by the combat commanders across the globe because of those 3 things and that we are highly specialized in that skill set.”
Lieutenant Colonel Jason Taylor recently completed a combat tour as the Director of Operations for the 335th Fighter Squadron, before his current assignment as 4th Training Squadron commander. He echoes the downrange desire for the F-15E:
“A big compliment to the Strike Eagle community that I’ve heard on multiple occasions from the combatant commanders and the CFACC (Combined Forces Air Component Commander) – anytime something is going on or something changes, one of the very first questions they ask is, ‘Where are my Strike Eagles?’ They want to know where they are, their accessibility to them, how many there are, and when will they be here… because we bring a great capability to the table. In a tactical environment, efficiency is where you win. If you can get things done in 30 seconds vs 5 minutes, there’s your win, and having a 2-person crew is a huge part of that. It’s an extremely capable airframe, and that’s why they’re keeping us around.”
Compared to combat operations in World War II, the capability that the F-15E holds is staggering. “If you watch the old WWII movies,” says Dr. Roy “Doc” Heidicker, 4th Fighter Wing Historian, “it took 1000 B-17s and hundreds of fighters to go take out a German factory. What does it take today? Just 2 Strike Eagles. Think about that – they are the bombers and the fighters all in one, so what the people in this wing do and what we ask of them is unbelievable. When you look at the amount of power that this wing projects, the 4th is the tip of the spear.”
In September, the 4th Fighter Wing celebrated its 75th anniversary in a big way, honoring its Eagle squadron roots which pre-dated both the US involvement in World War II, as well as the United States Air Force itself. The wing also paid homage to the other eras, bringing a P-51 Mustang and F-86 Sabre in to serve as a historical backdrop for the anniversary gala. Along with events such as the Battle of Britain and piano burning ceremonies, during the course of the weekend the 4th Fighter Wing unveiled a specially painted F-15E. Adorned in historical insignias, tail 87-0189 celebrates the unique and storied past of the 4th Fighter Wing.
“This is the beginning, this Eagle Squadron emblem on the inside the tail,” explains Doc Heidicker. “Every one of our Eagle squadron members wore this patch on their uniform. Then what really started us off with “Fourth But First” was the 4th Fighter Group in World War II, represented by the boxing Eagle on the side. The emblem that was created on the outside of tail, it shows our heritage from 1942 to 2017. That’s 75 years of being the best of the best,” he says, going on to describe the eagle motif, “and what could be more magnificent than having an F-15E Strike Eagle that is painted as an actual eagle in motion? It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Overlaid over the eagle’s wings on top of the jet is the 4th Fighter Wing’s patch, and Doc is keen to point out its significance. “First all we’re the tip of the spear, which is the main feature. These 3 feathers represent the 3 original Eagle squadrons. Also when this emblem was created, the 4th was just starting to fly jets, represented here with the flame. There’s so much history and heritage incorporated onto a single jet – how cool is that!?”
Over the course of six decades that the wing has been at Seymour, the command has continued to make history as it lives up to the motto Fourth But First. “We have quite a history of being first in many respects, so it’s a mentality of leading the way,” says Colonel Dickens. “It’s something that is both easy to remember, and to embrace.”
The author would like to thank everyone who made this project a possibility, with special thanks to Colonel Christopher Sage, 4FW/CC; Colonel Richard Dickens 4OG/CC; Lieutnant Colonel Jason Taylor 4TS/CC; Major Rocco Botticelli, 4TS; Doctor Roy “Doc” Heidicker, 4FW Historian; the entire 334th Fighter Squadron and 334th AMU; and Mister Robert Kerns, 4FW/PA.
For some excellent detailed information on the 4th Fighter Group, check out the Association of the 4th Fighter Group’s website: http://www.4thfightergroupassociation.org
Stay tuned for Part 2 as we dive into the making of an F-15E Strike Eagle crew!