ORANG 75th - Evolution of Kingsley aircraft

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 173rd Fighter Wing
Kingsley Field became an Oregon Air National Guard asset in 1981 when the active duty turned over its alert mission to the reserve component.  The USAF used the F-106s in those days but because the 142nd Fighter Wing in Portland, Ore. would man the mission, they converted the alert mission to their aircraft, the F-4 Phantom II.

At this time the Active Duty Air Force began moving out of the F-4 airframe and transitioned the aircraft to the reserve component and ANG units which were using the F-4 for alert missions around the country. This triggered a need to train additional Air National Guard pilots for the F-4, and top officials began looking for a place to bed that mission down.

Out of several options they finally chose Kingsley Field for several different reasons, says Maj. Ryan Bartholomew, 173rd Fighter Wing Historian. "The key features were that the Air Force has just left so you had a base that had recently been mothballed, a friendly community, and of course flying weather."

The alert mission and the schoolhouse both operated with the F-4 Phantom until the Air National Guard announced the pending replacement of the F-4 for the alert mission, says Bartholomew. The only question remaining being what aircraft would fly the mission.

"There was a competition between the F-18, the F-20 which never came into existence besides a prototype, and the ADF-16 which is the air defense version," he said. The Air National Guard also announced that whichever airframe they chose, the new pilots would receive their training at Kingsley Field. He also mentions that a small mockup of the F-20 was created with the Kingsley Field tail flash.

"The F-16 won that competition," said Bartholomew, and the newly modified airframes arrived at the base in 1989. At this time the 142nd Fighter Wing is still manning the alert mission at Kingsley Field and began a transition to the new air superiority fighter, the F-15.

"Portland could no longer sit alert here because then they didn't have the maintenance resources; so they left and North Dakota, the Happy Hooligans, began to sit alert here in the early 90s in the F-16," he added. They remained here for about five years before the alert mission at Kingsley Field was closed permanently.

At the same time those aircraft departed Klamath Falls, those running the training mission were taking stock of their situation and making decisions with long-term ramifications.

Colonel (ret.) Thomas Schiess, a former 173rd Fighter Wing commander, takes us back to his time as an instructor pilot. "If we go back to the 94-95 timeframe it became obvious to the guys running the base at the time 'our future in the F-16 is limited and we are hunting for new missions,'" he said.

Their hunt revealed an opportunity for an increase in F-15 air superiority training.  
"From 95-96 time frame we worked really hard to try and get this F-15 training mission," he said. "There are a lot of misconceptions people have, they think someone just walked up to us and said 'we'd like you to be the F-15 training base'--it wasn't like that there were a lot of people that worked really hard to make that happen."

On Feb. 13, 1998 the first F-15 Eagle arrived at Kingsley Field, and inside of a year the first student pilot arrived making it the first Air National Guard F-15C training base.

The hard work didn't end with gaining that mission; in fact, in some respects, it began in earnest, said then vice commander Lt. Col. Paul Weitlisbach in an interview cited at skytrailer.com. During a normal transition between airframes there is a gaining and losing unit, and the support equipment transitions with the airframes. In this case a number of units around the country each contributed an airframe or two without the accompanying support assets. Kingsley Field had to literally scavenge old, worn-out gear that was ruled a loss by other units.

"You talk about your $300 toilet seat. This is the complete opposite. We're creating multimillion dollar test stations out of 'garbage' -- spinning straw into gold," Weitlisbach said of the period after gaining the mission. "This has been a Herculean effort by my people."

The 173rd FW labored through the intervening years and earned a reputation for stellar work, and the 114th Fighter Squadron earned top Air Education and Training Fighter Squadron of the Year in 2006, 2009, 2010, and 2014.

Until 2009 the Air Force split the load for F-15C training between the Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida and Kingsley Field; however in 2009 Air Force officials decided to transition to solely training F-22 pilots at the Florida base--and Kingsley saw an opening. The base was flying around 5,000 hours a year and was postured to go as high as 7,500 and they felt they could train all the F-15C pilots the Air Force would need. The Air Force agreed, and Kingsley Field became the sole schoolhouse for those who wanted to fly the F-15C.

Today, Kingsley Field represents 100-percent of the Air Force's F-15C formal training, or as the base puts it, "where America's air superiority begins." The current era resembles the history outlined here in that there are many changes afoot. One of the most remarkable is the addition of more than 80 active duty Airmen supplied to help increase fighter pilot production beyond initial requests with a total force integration.

Looking down the road there are extensive plans to modify and sustain an already 35-year-old airframe for a service life stretching to 2040. Radar upgrades are planned and a helmet mounted system projecting the heads-up display is fully integrated into the flying equipment.