On Sept. 13, 1985, F-15 test pilot Maj. Wilbert D. “Doug” Pearson (now retired Maj. Gen.) took off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., on a mission which would see him become history’s first space ace.
Dubbed the “Celestial Eagle Flight,” the assignment called for Pearson to make a near vertical ascent in a specially-configured F-15A to over 35,000 feet, to fire a 2,700 pound, 18-foot long missile into space and kill an obsolete satellite over 2000 miles away, at an altitude of 340 miles (about as high as the space shuttle could fly).
It was the culmination of a six year development and test program for the anti-satellite (or ASAT) missile; Maj. Pearson commanded the F-15 Anti-Satellite Combined Test Force. The flight required Pearson to arrive at a precise point and time over the Pacific Missile Test Range, and fire a Vought ASM-135A ASAT missile automatically from the belly of his jet, taking aim on the 2,000-pound Solwind P78-1 solar laboratory, which launched in 1979.
Weapons in space was already controversial, and still is to this day, but so was the shoot down of the satellite, especially in the science community, because even though it was not operating at 100%, it was still returning valuable data. But that’s a whole other story.
Going supersonic at Mach 1.2, Maj. Pearson pulled into a 3.8g, 65-degree climb, slowing down to just below Mach 1, before firing the missile at 38,100 feet, about 200 miles west of Vandenberg AFB.
The rocket separated from the missile after the first stage, and propelled a miniature homing vehicle with an infrared sensor into space on a bullseye intercept with the satellite, nailing its target with a closing velocity of 15,000 mph and marking the first successful satellite kill by an aircraft launched missile in history.
The Air Force originally wanted to modify 20 F-15s to do the same, an operational force of 112 ASM-135s, but huge cost overruns and technical issues killed the program in 1988 (after the F-15s had already been modified of course).
According to the USAF, “The jet, F-15A 76-0084, was the 275th F-15 fighter jet to roll off the McDonnell Douglas assembly line in St. Louis, and it flew its maiden flight on Veteran’s Day, 1977. Its assignments have included two stints with the 49th Test Fighter Wing at Holloman AFB, the 1st TFW at Langley AFB, the 6512th Test Squadron of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards, AFB, the 131st Fighter Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard in St. Louis and the 125th Fighter Wing of the Florida Air National Guard.”
In 2007, 22 years after the mission, Staff Sgt. Aaron Hartley with the Florida Air National Guard 125th Fighter Wing, Detachment 1, was tasked with putting together a lithograph for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) F-15 Alert Detachment at Homestead Air Reserve Base.
“I was researching the history of the jets to see which one was the ‘coolest’ and had the most history, so I contacted historians from the Boeing Company, Edwards AFB and the Air Force Historical Research Society at Maxwell AFB, Ala.,” he said.
That’s when he learned that the 125th FW had the historic jet, and so he reached out to the retired Maj. Gen. Pearson about it, who by that time had moved on to vice president of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Integrated Test Force.
His son, then Capt. Todd Pearson, was an active-duty F-15 pilot at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.
So naturally, the idea of a Celestial Eagle remembrance flight piloted by Captain Pearson was born.
“Celestial Eagle” was painted on the nose of 76-0084, and the captain’s name was painted on the side of the cockpit. He even wore the same circular patch on his left shoulder that his father wore on that same day 22 years earlier, and they performed the pre-flight walk around the aircraft together.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Captain Pearson said regarding the remembrance flight. “I’ve always been an aviation ‘buff,’ and I’ve wanted to fly eagles since I was three because my dad flew them. The flight was a significant event in military aviation history, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to be a part of this 22 years later.”
The historic jet retired to the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center “Boneyard” at Davis Monthan AFB in 2009, when the 125th FW transitioned to the F-15C/D.