F-16, F-15, F-4 & F-105: Symbols of aerospace engineering revolution

Cadet Chapel building. Photo: John T. Stemple.

July 2014 | Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) personnel and visitors to the Cadet Chapel readily note the Aircraft Displays at each corner of the Cadet Area. One sees an F-105 Thunderchief or “Thud” in the northeast, an F-4 Phantom II to the southeast, an F-16 Fighting Falcon to the northwest and an F-15 Eagle to the southwest. Interestingly, the static jets date to a remarkable period of technological advancement. With staff and alumni celebrating the institution’s 60th anniversary and the Class of 1964 its 50th, it is noteworthy that these now silent and motionless pieces of winged aluminum attest to the formulation and implementation of revolutionary design principles.

Republic F-105. Photo: John T. Stemple.

In 1958, as cadets moved to USAFA from the academy’s temporary home in Denver, F-105s were just entering service. Designed with swift delivery of nuclear weapons in mind the large fighter-bombers were heavy and possessed a swept, narrow wing with a high loading that, unfortunately, correspondingly prevented sprightliness.

The “Lead Sleds,” as Thunderchiefs were also known, when tasked with delivery of conventional bombs over what was at the time North Vietnam, suffered a not insignificant rate of loss to nimble MiGs, AAA and SAMs.

The F-15 and F-4. Photo: John T. Stemple.

Two-seat F-4s began escorting F-105s, but the massive Phantoms also lacked agility and furthermore tended to exhibit adverse yaw during the tight maneuvering commonly required during dogfighting.

Simply put, USAF aircrews, strapped into their speedy but hefty mounts, were all too often encountering ground defenses in planes lacking the inherent ability to bank sharply enough to avoid shifting streams of anti-aircraft fire or enemies in flying machines who could regularly engage and disengage at will.

Even as USAFA’s class of 1964 was preparing to graduate and General Curtis E. LeMay, the serving USAF Chief of Staff, was composing his address to the graduates, a combative but nonetheless visionary and determined reformer, who had been a top Fighter Weapons School instructor, and a civilian colleague were introducing what is now referred to as “Energy Maneuverability” (E-M) theory.

The military member who received the revelation was USAF Maj. John Boyd. Biographer Robert Coram records in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War the fact that the major was, as Robert Coram states (page 7), “One of the most important unknown men of his time.”

With the goal of producing planes possessing optimal performance capabilities, proponents pushed for practical application of the theoretical. As a result, E-M positively impacted the F-15 program and eventually led to the quite exceptional F-16. Testifying to their superlative engineering, the F-15 and F-16 continue, whenever tasked, to effectively establish and maintain airspace superiority.

Cadets passing the F-16. Photo: John T. Stemple.

As seasons march on and older faculty members depart, the challenges USAF faced over Southeast Asia and afterward overcame slip further into obscurity.

Fortunately, the quadrangle contains tangible reminders. It is fitting that the symbols of that transformative era occupy spaces of distinction.



Note: John T. Stemple and William Commerford, a USAF & Vietnam veteran, jointly authored this article. In 1968 Mr. Commerford rejoined the 12th TAC Fighter Wing at Cam Ranh Bay, Republic of Vietnam, and worked with F-4 Phantom II weapons systems. From 1969-1970 he was assigned to the 4th TAC Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, NC, which was the home of the 334rd, 335th and 336th Tactical Fighter Squadrons. William was selected for the F-4 Fighter Global Support Team. His weekly duties included conducting several aerial F-4C weapons tests.

Suggested Viewings

Sources and Suggested Readings

Broughton, Jack, Thud Ridge, New York: Bantam, 1985.

Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.

John Boyd – Hill Air Force Base


John Boyd, Colonel – Arlington National Cemetery Website


John Boyd (military strategist)


John Boyd – The Aviation History Museum Online