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A New Bird in the Oregon Roost: The Beginning of the Eagle Era in the 142nd Fighter Wing

A New Bird in the Oregon Roost:The Beginning of the Eagle Era in the 142nd Fighter Wing

F-15A Eagles of the 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron escort Sukhoi Su-27/FLANKER fighters of the Soviet Union in American airspace in June, 1990, amidst the post-Cold War thaw in international relations. The Soviets flew to air shows at Paine Field, WA and also in Oklahoma, and the 123rd FIS escorted them all along the way to and from. (142FW History Archives)

A New Bird in the Oregon Roost:The Beginning of the Eagle Era in the 142nd Fighter Wing

An F-15A of the 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron enters the alert hangar at McChord AFB in February, 1990, as the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group established Det 1 at McChord even as the unit’s F-15 conversion continued. Det 1 was maintained at McChord until force structure cuts closed it on 30 September 1993. (Courtesy McChord Air Museum)

PORTLAND, Ore. --

May 24th, 2019 marked 30 years of F-15 Eagle operations by the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, and thirty years of incredible growth in mission capability and employment as well, taking the 142FW from the dedicated air defense mission and growing to include the air superiority domain. This was achieved with the hard work and day-to-day training by many professionals in air and ground echelons through successive versions of the F-15. 

But the Eagle era at Portland actually had beginnings in 1987 as the Viper era, back when the wing was designated as the 142nd Fighter-Interceptor Group (142nd FIG).  Yes, you read correctly, Viper, as in F-16.  At the time the 142nd FIG had two fighter squadrons assigned, the Portland-based 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (123rd FIS) and the Kingsley Field, Klamath Falls, OR-based 114th Tactical Fighter Training Squadron (114th TFTS).  Both were to receive the F-16 Air Defense Fighter variant then under development; the ADF was a modified F-16A Block 15. 

The initial conversion from the F-4 to the F-16 was first broached in public discussion at least as early as May, 1987, and by January, 1988, pilot Maj Larry Kemp and maintenance programs and analysis MSgt Gene Jaramillo were initially identified as project coordinators.  A USAF site activation team visited Portland between 26-29 January 1988 to help in the process.  The unit was expected to complete conversion from the F-4 to the F-16 in June/July of 1989, with the initial two to three aircraft expected on hand by March/April 1989.

The Portland F-16 conversion plan changed abruptly on 18 February 1988 when Secretary of the Air Force Aldridge announced some major force structure changes and reductions meant to meet Congressional budget restrictions.  Of the eight ANG units mentioned in aircraft upgrades, only the 123rd Fighter-Interceptor Squadron was slated to change to the F-15 in late 1989 with all the other ANG units affected in this specific announcement converting to the F-16.* Of note, plans for conversion of the unit’s 114th TFTS to the F-16 Air Defense Fighter (ADF) continued and the 114th converted from the F-4 to the F-16 later that year.  But that is a separate story.

As a result of the force structure change, in May, 1988, Maj Don Wimberly, Maj Larry Kemp and SSgt David Hansen were identified as the focal points for coordinating F-15 conversion planning, with 192 task items to accomplish.  A Site Activation Task Force visited Portland to assist.

As the time grew near for the first F-15 to arrive at Portland, the USAF sent the 142nd some F-15 expertise. On 15 May 1989, Maj Dennis Gavin, the new active duty advisor to the ORANG and an F-15 pilot, arrived from Tyndall AFB, FL for duty with the group.

It wasn’t long after that that the Eagle era formally and officially began at Portland.  It started when Col (later Maj Gen) D.E.B. Ward was the group commander, on May 24, 1989, when Maj Gavin flew in to Portland with McDonnell Douglas F-15B Eagle 76-0139-17-MC.  This F-15 transferred to the Redhawks from the 318th FIS at McChord AFB, WA and began in earnest the 123rd’s transition from the F-4 Phantom II into the F-15 Eagle era. 

Not content with Portland’s workload in converting to a new airframe alone, higher headquarters also changed the unit’s alert responsibilities.  On 26 June 1989, official notification arrived directing that that Det 1, 123rd FIS at Kingsley be redesignated as Det 1, 142nd FIG, retroactively effective to 1 April 1988, and furthermore would move in the near future from Klamath Falls to McChord AFB.  The North Dakota ANG was tasked to take over Klamath alert duty on 1 October 1989 while 142nd FIG focused on completing its conversion to the F-15.

At this point the F-15s were only trickling in to Portland.  By 30 June 1989, there were two F-15A and one F-15B two-seater at Portland.  Seventeen more Eagles were expected by December, 1989, at a rate of some two to three aircraft per month until transfer completion.  But the low number of aircraft was no indicator of the intensity of conversion activity going on in the unit.  By August, 1989, nearly half of the pilots, 22 of 48, were at school for transition.  School was about two and a half months at Luke AFB, AZ and at Tyndall AFB.  Four pilots had completed the program but were off on temporary duty for Mission Qualification Training (MQT).  The unit’s goal was to conduct all MQT at Portland starting from 1 October 1989. 

About 40 Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron (CAMS) maintainers were trained and ready.  Aircraft maintenance coordinator MSgt Claudia Polen was mentioned in the unit history as having a key role in the conversion.  Maj Gen D.E.B. Ward remembers that she “…did an outstanding job. We utilized the PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique) system.  All scheduling, organizational and coordination tasks for the Group were posted on the PERT chart and monitored for compliance by MSgt. Polen.” Some 279 maintainers were to be trained by December, 1989. 

As the F-15s came in, the F-4s departed.  There were still 10 x F-4C on hand during the August 1989 Unit Training Assembly (UTA).  Two of these venerable F-4C Phantom II fighter jets were ultimately retained at Portland, with one (63-7679) going to the memorial park on base and the other, 64-0776, ultimately, to the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA.

In September 1989, the cost of new and/or improved facilities needed for F-15 conversion at the base was given as around $17 million.  This encompassed changes in existing facilities and new construction on the flightline as well as behind the flightline.

And if conversion and alert location changes weren’t enough, unit leadership also changed during this period.  On 17 September 1989, 142nd FIG Commander Col D.E.B. Ward was selected to replace Maj Gen Sams as ORANG Commander.  Lt Col Terry Bernhardt became the new group commander.

Construction efforts on the base proceeded apace.  New alert barns for the F-15 were expected to be ready by 1 January 1990.  The F-15 Simulator from McChord was anticipated to arrive in March 1990 and be placed into the new flight simulator building by the operations building.

Even with the full conversion still underway, the unit met the date to open the new alert site at McChord AFB.  On 1 Feb 1990, the 142nd FIG activated the alert detachment (Det 1) at McChord with two F-15s, two pilots and 25 support personnel.  (Note: From 1 October 1989 to 1 February 1990 the 48th FIS from Langley AFB, VA covered alert duty at McChord after the unfortunate demise of the 318th FIS.)

The 142nd was well enough along in the conversion process to be given some interesting tasking in addition to standing up the new alert detachment.  In June, 1990, 142nd FIG F-15s escorted Soviet Su-27/FLANKER fighters from Canada to airshows in the US.  F-15s from Portland and Det 1 were involved in the effort.  They initially escorted the Soviet fighters on 11 June to Paine Field, WA.  On 13 June, they escorted them from Paine Field to Oklahoma.  Then on 18 June they escorted them from Oklahoma back to Canada from which they returned to the Soviet Union. 

Unit leadership changes continued to occur though the conversion marched on.  On 17 June 1990, Lt Col Bernhardt moved to Salem as new HQ ORANG Deputy for operations (DO).  Lt Col Terry "Spike" McKinsey became the new 142nd FIG commander.

On 1 July 1990, the conversion was deemed complete and the unit was fully operational in the F-15.  During the July Unit Training Assembly (UTA) awards were presented for accomplishments in the conversion.  It was a thoroughly accomplished, professional conversion that laid the foundation for three outstanding decades of F-15 Eagle operations at Portland Air National Guard Base.

In the F-15 the 142nd FIG continued a mission transformation that actually began in the F-4 era when the unit began air superiority mission training in addition to the long-standing air defense mission of the unit.  What began in the F-4 (another great story) was fully realized in the F-15 era as the unit grew in experience and proficiency.  This is seen in the historical record of the last 30 years as the unit maintained its air defense alert responsibility, called Aerospace Control Alert (ACA).  It is also reflected in the many air superiority taskings and deployments the unit has performed.

A similar and equally successful F-15 conversion process in the Oregon ANG also took place in 1998 at Kingsley Field when the 114th Fighter Squadron of the 173rd Fighter Wing converted from the F-16 ADF to the F-15 Eagle.  Between the two bases now, the Oregon Air National Guard has amassed over 50 years of experience in flying the F-15 Eagle. 

But in looking over the last 30 years, one can definitely say that the F-15 of 2019 is not the F-15 of 1989.  The 142nd has operated the A-model with elements of the second Multistage Improvement Program (MSIP II, MSIP I for A-models having been cancelled), C-Model MSIP II and now the Golden Eagle upgrades with the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, latest avionics and most current weapons.  New capabilities are in the works for the F-15C as well, such as an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) pod to give pilots an additional option for detecting and tracking targets beyond visual range, including at night.

Today, the men and women of the 142nd Fighter Wing operate and maintain the most capable F-15s in the inventory.  They are ready to serve the nation with the Eagle in the ACA mission here at home, and also ready for expeditionary deployment and employment in the air superiority mission when and where required. 

*Note: The 101st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the Massachusetts ANG was the first ANG air defense squadron to convert to the F-15A as Tactical Air Command turned its air defense mission over to the ANG, with Eagle jets from the inactivating active duty 5th FIS at Minot AFB, beginning in April, 1988.  This conversion was already planned when the announcement came in February, 1988, that the 123rd FIS would convert to the F-15.