The Return of William Tell
Article and photos by Shawn Byers
After a 19-year hiatus, Air Combat Command brought back the William Tell Air-to-Air Weapons Meet from the 11th to the 15th of September, 2023 at the Air Dominance Center in Savannah, Georgia.
The bi-annual exercise began in 1954 with units from the United States Air Force coming together to test the tactics of Air Combat. It is named for the legend of William Tell, a 14th Century Swiss farmer who had to shoot an apple off his son’s head with an arrow.
The camaraderie of competition and the drive to be better enhanced the ability of the force as a whole with new tactics and confidence. Attendees say it is the most fun thing they have done as a fighter pilot. Due to world events, the exercise ceased in 2004 (although it was also on hiatus between 1996 and 2004).
Why now? The Commanders of Air Combat Command realized that something had been lost after two decades of war against an inferior opponent. With the emergence of near peer adversaries, the time was now to recapture the spirit of Air Superiority.
Featuring a syllabus of differing scenarios, the teams are tested on an average of two sorties per day. The experience allows them to develop new tactics and apply the lessons learned in air combat. What separates William Tell from other exercises like Red Flag is the competition. It is called the Super Bowl of Air Combat.
Air Crew Teams consisted of 5 personnel with a non-flying Team Captain, two instructor pilots, a flight lead, and a wingman. The F-15Es have extra crewmembers because of the Weapons Systems Operators. Each team also had a two-person intelligence team and a three-person weapons load team. Additionally, there were three-person Command and Control (C2) teams conducting ground-based C2 from Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia.
Being a modern version of William Tell, I expected a lot of F-22s and F-35s. There were also F-15E Strike Eagles, F-15Cs, and aggressor F-16 and T-38s.
The F-22s were represented by every base. The 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia was the host. The 3rd Wing from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska and the 154th Wing from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii were also represented but they used the Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing. It was disappointing to not see other tail codes but I understand why.
F-35s were represented by the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB, Utah and the 158th Fighter Squadron of the Air National Guard from Burlington, Vermont.
F-15E Strike Eagles were from the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina and the 366th Fighter Wing from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.
F-15C Eagles were the other National Guard team from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts.
F-16 Aggressors were from the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada. T-38s were from the 2nd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall AFB, Florida and the 7th Fighter Squadron from Langley.
The Command and Control competition was between the E-3 Sentry operators from Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, Kadena AFB, Japan and Elmendorf-Richardson operating off site.
The morning sortie was Fighter integration. This is when multiple sections of Blue Air encounter an unknown number of Red Air. Teams are briefed on a threat, then have a short window to build the team, plan the tactics and arrive at a plan of execution.
The afternoon sortie was 1-v-1, visual range, Basic Fighter Maneuvers between similar types such as F-22 versus F-22. The proverbial knife fight in a phone booth. Additional flights were 2-v-2 Air Combat Maneuvering. The engagements are graded by an evaluation team.
The teams had a day’s sortie geared toward a banner shoot. Utilizing a Lear 35, a banner was towed for the fighters to shoot at twice daily. These results were also recorded and teams were able to take their banner home.
Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport has two runways. Runway 10/28 is 9,350 feet long and the crosswind Runway 01/19 is 7,000 feet long. SAV is a medium hub and has scheduled airline service carrying just under 4 Million passengers per year. It is also home to Gulfstream Aerospace, the Georgia Air National Guard and the Air Dominance Center. It is not unusual to see a few airliners or a Gulfstream taking off between fighter launches.
My trip was a quick, two day, fly and drive. I never left the perimeter roadway of the Airport. My hotel, eateries, fuel stations and spotting locations were all there. My main vantage point outside the airport was across the street from the departure end of Runway 10. In between power lines, trees and passing vehicles, I managed to get some nice photos. Prior to the media visit time slot, I found, quite accidentally, the spot that all the other spotters knew about, near the approach end on a dead end street near Gulfstream property. It was too late for anything but the F-22 Demonstration Team departing for a display at Tybee Island and returning. It made me wish I had one more day to photograph.
Media Day was Wednesday at 1pm. We were transported to the ramp and allowed to photograph the aircraft with a few ground rules. It was a hot and steamy day on the ramp as we photographed aircraft parked or taxiing.
We moved to a midpoint of the runway as clouds rolled in. We saw some aircraft takeoff while others passed overhead for landing and rollout. One F-15E had a spirited launch, waving his wings at us. Many of the arriving aircraft taxied by our location.
Our final spot was near the hangar readying for the arming competition. The sun came out brilliantly as three F-15 crews prepared to faceoff. As media, we chose to sit on the ground while the squadron mates sat behind us on bleachers to cheer on their team. This occurred every evening with different airframes. Today, it was the F-15C team from Massachusetts, an F-15E from Mountain Home and an F-15E from Seymour Johnson.
We were also in the presence of greatness. In a wheelchair, dressed sharply, was Lt. Col. (Ret) James Harvey, who was the “Top Gun” of 1949. Col (Ret) Cesar “Rico” Rodriguez, a Triple Mig Killer in the F-15C was seen congratulating the winning team.
The competition starts a little slow as one armorer prepares the aircraft hard points while the other two perform quality control checks on the weapons. Suddenly, things start moving. The first missile is on the move and heading toward the wing. The home crowd cheers. Once all three teams get missiles moving, there is a lot of cheering and a lot of activity to watch. It is still undetermined who will win. Can someone work faster and close the gap? The answer was no. The Air National Guard team from Massachusetts got out early and completed the mounting of 4 missiles well before the second place contender finished. Ultimately, the Massachusetts Guardsmen won out against the winners of the other categories from the F-22 and F-35 communities.
Scores were on display in real time. As the competition continued, competitors could see how they were doing on the large scoreboard.
At the end of competition, a number of awards were given out. The trophies are historical from the last iterations of the William Tell Meet. They “came out of the woodwork” in the final weeks leading up to the competition from units or individuals who last possessed them. The awards were as follows:
Major Richard I. Bong Fighter Integration Trophy – 3rd Wing, 366th FW, 388th/419th FW
Big Eye Task Force Top C2 Wing – 552nd ACW
Lieutenant Colonel James H. Harvey, III Top F-15 Wing Award – 104th FW
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker Top F-22 Wing Award – 1st FW
Brigadier General Robin Olds Top F-35 Wing Award – 158th FW
Colonel Jesse C. Williams Top Intel Tradecraft Wing Award – 1st FW
Chief Master Sergeant Argol “Pete” Lusse Maintenance Team Award – 1st FW
Top F-15 Crew Chief – 366th FW
Top F-22 Crew Chief – 1st FW
Top F-35 Crew Chief – 158th FW
F-15 Individual Superior Performer – 104th FW
F-22 Individual Superior Performer – 3rd WG
F-35 Individual Superior Performer – 158th FW
Overall Weapons Load Competition – 104th FW
It was truly a privilege to be on the ramp among all of these American Heroes and representing media at this prestigious event. I wish to thank Mr. Mike Reaves of Air Combat Command Public Affairs as well as the team “herding the cats”. I did not know what to expect but in the end, I could say it was quite a day. I hope I can return for the next iteration. A quote I saw from a participant was if the exercise does not return in 2025, there will be a mutiny.