Air-Minded: Where Are the Eagle Drivers?

I invited a few F-15 buddies to join me on Facebook, where I started a by-invitation group for current and former military aviators.

For the past year or two I’ve been looking for the presence of other F-15 pilots on the net.  Just did another quick sweep, and AFAIK I’m the only one.  Although the F-16 bubbas have one, there’s no F-15 pilots’ forum.  No message boards, no blogs, no nuthin’.  This surprises me, because even in my day — 1978 to 1995 — Eagle drivers were always chasing after the latest and greatest electronic goodies, and when personal computers, e-mail, and the internet came into use, they enthusiastically joined in.  So where are they today?

And what about the new guys and girls?  The Eagle is still very much on active duty, with new pilots being assigned to it every day.  If those new pilots aren’t on Facebook, I’ll be very surprised.  I’m hoping some current F-15 pilots find my group, and as noted I’m chumming the waters for former F-15 pilots as well.

Why make the group invitational, you ask?  Because there are a lot of, uh, fans of the Eagle out there, and more than a few web sites purporting to represent various F-15 flying units, sites that always turn out to be fronts for patch collectors.

Patch collectors.  I remember being quite flattered the first time a patch collector hit me up.  I was a new Eagle driver with the 32nd Tactical Fighter Squadron in The Netherlands, and one day this Dutch teenager knocked on my door in Hoevelaken to tell me he was my greatest fan.  I had no idea how he found me, but figured some of my neighbors must have spread the word.  The agreeable young man eventually got around to asking me for a 32nd TFS patch.  I gave him one.  I soon learned he was part of a network of entepreneurs engaged in the buying and selling of military memorabilia.  I imagine today’s patch collectors, what with eBay and all, are busier than ever.

While I’m reminiscing I should mention plane spotters.  The taxiways at Soesterberg Air Base, our operating location in The Netherlands, were generally screened from public view by trees and vegatation, but there were a couple of locations where civilians could stand outside the fence and see us clearly as we taxied to and from the runway.  Every day crowds of young men lined up against the chain link and took photographs of our jets.

The photographers were plane-spotters, part of a Europe-wide plane-spotters’ network.  It was an active network.  Dutch plane-spotters captured the tail numbers of every F-15 taking off and landing at Soesterberg during the day.  If, one day, they noted that six of those tail numbers took off but never landed, they’d put out the word.  If, later that day, an Italian plane-spotter noted six strange F-15s landing at Decimommanu Air Base on Sardinia, he’d put out the word.  Within hours the European plane-spotter network would know that six Soesterberg F-15s had deployed to Decimommanu.

It was more than a hobby: the network was exploited by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies.  Mind you, our own military attaches in the Eastern Bloc were busy doing the same thing . . . without the help of an extensive network of amateur Iron Curtain plane-spotters.

In spite of the constant military emphasis on operational security, I don’t think NATO or the USAF minded this sharing of information one bit.  This was occuring in the years leading up to the end of the Cold War, a time when the military forces (and particularly the air forces) of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact were struggling pay their bills.  Soviet fighter pilots were flying around 100 hours a year; I flew over 1,000 hours in my three years at Soesterberg.  It must have been awfully disheartening for them to track US and NATO flying hours and training deployments and realize that their own pilots were so ill-trained by comparison.

Some day I’ll tell you about our resident spy at Soesterberg, so stay tuned!

© 2008 – 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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