144th Fighter Wing F-15 Eagles
The 144th Fighter Wing / 194th Fighter Squadron, of the California Air National Guard, is the US Air Force’s latest F-15 Eagle unit to form. Based in a tight corner of the Fresno / Yosemite International Airport in central California, the 194th FS has been a resident since 1955. And since 1992, It has also maintained a geographically separated alert facility at March Air Reserve Base in southern California. For more history of the unit, please click this link.
The unit had operated the F-16 Fighting Falcon since 1989, first operating the F-16 ADF (Air Defense Version), and then upgrading to the F-16C in 1995. It had been long rumored that the 144th FW would get the F-15 for its air defense mission. It finally came to fruition in June 2013, when the first F-15C Eagle, 84-0014, arrived from the 120th Fighter Wing, Montana ANG. Incidentally, the 120th FW had only been operating the Eagle for a few years after transitioning from the F-16C.
The trademark tail markings would soon be applied to the Eagles as the unit continued its conversion process. In November 2013, the last flight of the F-16C was made, flying alongside the first Eagle to arrive, now marked in high visibility 144th FW markings. Other Eagles flowed in to the unit, including some former 65th Aggressor Squadron F-15Cs from Nellis AFB wearing the sand/brown camouflage. Unit markings were applied to these aircraft while they retained their unique paint jobs. The current 144th FW Eagle inventory is 22 airframes.
In November 2014, the unit travelled to Tyndall AFB, Florida, to participate in the Weapons System Evaluation Program (WSEP) where aircraft, weapons and pilots were tested with live missile shots over the Gulf of Mexico.
I had the extreme pleasure and honor to visit the 144th FW on 29 January 2015. Having planned the visit to coincide with my Las Vegas trip the last week of January 2015, the unit was very accommodating with my schedule, but did warn me about the fog this time of year. I made the 6 hour drive the prior afternoon and arrived in Fresno to clear weather. I had to be at the base at 0730 and when I awoke at 0500 and looked outside, I said out loud, along with a couple profanities…“Fog… I forgot about the fog”.
I arrived at the base promptly and met up with SMsgt Chris Drudge, Public Affairs Superintendent at the 144th FW. He showed me around their shop, which was very impressive. As the fog hung around, he kept in close contact with Operations. The morning launch kept getting pushed out, and ultimately got cancelled. The afternoon one was scheduled for around 1330. Ever so slowly, the fog started to lift. Chris escorted me out to the ramp and hangar for some static shots as the sun was breaking through. We waited a bit in Operations and I ran into a couple pilots that used to fly at the local 104th FW and that I have photographed many times, and they were scheduled to fly the afternoon.
I also met up with a fellow scale model builder, Sgt Rod Bettencourt, who is the airfield manager at the 144th. When it was time for the afternoon launch, Rod drove Chris and I out to the east/northeast side of the airfield to watch 5 F-15s take off. One of the 2-seaters had a lucky airman in the back getting an incentive ride.
The 5 jets quickly roared out with familiar afterburners thundering, and would be back in about 90 minutes. We went back to the base and Rod and I talked about models. Once the call came in that the jets were 10 minutes out we quickly went back out to the end of the runway to catch their landings. We then moved up a bit to get them taxiing, and then closer to the ramp for their final transit back onto the ramp.
It was a fantastic day and experience capturing the Eagles for the first time and getting to know some of the 144th FW members. The entire 144th FW was welcoming and accommodating.
I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Colonel John “Screech” York for starting the process for the visit, SMSgt Chris Drudge and his staff in Public Affairs for their welcoming and constant concern for me, and Sgt Rod Bettencourt for his time and driving us around. I’d also like to thanks Craig Happ for some details for this article.