Putting warheads on foreheads: Former F-15E WSO Amanda Higgins recalls her USAF career

Amanda Higgins in F-15E Strike Eagle
Amanda Higgins in her former office, where some of the nation’s business was conducted. Photo: Amanda Higgins.

In the early and mid 1970s bell-bottom jeans were in vogue. A future F-15E Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) named Amanda Higgins had not yet been born and neither had one of her loves, the McDonnell Douglas F-15E. Midnight at the Oasis, now considered to be a classic song, was composed in 1973 and climbed charts during 1974. Vocal artist Maria Muldaur sang lyrics that included the wordings “Send your camel to bed” and “Let’s slip off to a sand dune” among other allusions to desert locales. The recording was nominated for both “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year” at the 17th Annual Grammy Awards, which were held in 1975. During the referenced years three notable firsts took place, events which enabled the development of what would become the superlative McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) F-15E Strike Eagle.

First production McDonnell Douglas F-15E SN 86-0183 – USAF Public Domain photo 060905-F-1234S-026.

The first flight of the two-seat version of the F-15 (designated F-15B) took place in July 1973 and the first F-15 Eagle (an F-15B) was delivered to the U.S. Air Force on 13 November 1974. In addition, the U.S. Air Force’s official magazine Airman on its Airframe: The F-15 Eagle Webpage notes, “In 1975, an F-15A known as ‘Strike Eagle,’ broke eight time-to-climb world records and reached an altitude of 98,425 feet in 3 minutes, 28 seconds.”

John Boyd posing during the Korean War. Public Domain image via Wikipedia.

Who and what made the F-15 such a standout performer? Much credit goes to a maverick U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter pilot by the name of John Boyd who conceived of revolutionary theories dealing with aerial fighting and which translated into practical applications for aeronautical engineering. Boyd’s findings and mathematical analyses were embraced by a cadre of foresighted designers and incorporated into a new “fourth generation” air superiority fighter. The resulting airplane would eventually be designated “F-15.”

And who enables the F-15E Strike Eagle to continue as a highly effective piece of machinery and invaluable asset to battlefield management? The answer is engineers, technicians, maintenance personnel, pilots, and WSOs such as Amanda Higgins.

An F-15E Strike Eagle over the mountains and high desert of Afghanistan supporting Operation Mountain Lion 12 April 2006.  USAF photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung via Wikipedia.

An Air Force Association’s Air Force Magazine USAF Almanac 2018 (June 2018) entry (page 88) states that the F-15E in its current incarnation is essentially “an upgraded two-seat . . . multirole F-15 capable of sustaining nine G’s throughout the flight envelope.” Strike Eagles are powered by either a pair of Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 afterburning turbofan powerplants that produce approximately 23,450 pounds of thrust or two F100-PW-229s which generate some 29,000 pounds of thrust. Top speed for the Strike Eagle is approximately Mach 2.5 or two and a half times the speed of sound. Internal armament consists of one 20-millimeter M61A-20 six-barrel cannon with 500 rounds available. Externally, F-15Es can be loaded with four AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and four AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) or eight AIM-120 AMRAAMs. Notably, the Strike Eagle’s weapons mix can include the majority of USAF’s air-to-surface weapons. Additionally, electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods may be fitted.

Midnight at the Oasis‘ lyrics suggest romance, but there is little romantic about warfare being part of continuing human existence. This has been true from time immemorial. The aforementioned truism is even referenced in the Bible verse Ecclesiastes 3:3, a passage which was popularized in secular culture by the rock group The Byrds in 1965 via the hit song Turn, Turn, Turn. During the tune’s presence on the Pop Music charts the Vietnam Conflict was still raging and USAF was concurrently concerned with the threats represented by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe. In those times few anticipated that only sixteen years hence deserts would take center stage as Operation Freedom was launched in 1990. Who would have envisioned that that intervention would inaugurate ensuing decades of USAF action around Asia and elsewhere?

BCMC Dambuster special event modification to Lancaster ED925. Photo: BCMC/Doug Bowman.

Aerial bombardment was not always as “surgically precise” as it is in the modern era. Before reliable laser-guided “smart” bombs and GPS-guided standoff munitions were developed and entered the inventories of Allied aerial forces, military aviators had no choice but to constantly expose themselves and their aircraft to often intense antiaircraft artillery (AAA) fire emanating from the ground and enemy interceptors aloft. One example of such an undertaking, which will be commemorated by Bomber Command Museum of Canada in August, is the famous and daring “Dambusters” nocturnal raid (Operation Chastise) of 16-17 May 1943. The attack was undertaken by a squadron of Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bombers crewed by airmen who hailed from the United Kingdom, British Commonwealth, and United States. The men steadfastly, despite the dangers and low odds of survival, completed their tasking and achieved a measure of success but only after incurring a high cost in terms of personnel and aeroplanes.

Precision placement of ordinance and the F-15E’s inherent ability to fight off airborne adversaries are hallmarks of the Strike Eagle. In fact, the Air Force Magazine USAF Almanac 2018 synopsis describes the F-15E’s mission set as follows: “All-weather deep interdiction/attack, tactical nuclear delivery, and air-to-air combat.”

An F-15E Strike eagle conducts a mission over Afghanistan. USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon via Wikipedia.

Considering the above, it is hardly surprising that from the beginning F-15Es have played pivotal roles in military operations over Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. In virtually every theater of operation Strike Eagle fighter-bombers have carried out deep penetration strikes against targets and infrastructure, performed combat air patrols, and provided close air support for Coalition forces.

In a Black Rifle Coffee Company It’s Who We Are video (embedded below), Program Manager Amanda Higgins speaks about her USAF career and states that as a WSO her job was essentially to “put warheads on foreheads.” But Amanda did much more than release iron bombs, fire missiles, and drop flares.

4th Tactical Fighter Wing F-15E Eagles during Operation Desert Shield. Public Domain image via Wikipedia.

Most readers likely associate the activities of the aft crewmember in a fighter jet as those depicted by actor Anthony Edwards’ portrayal of a U.S. Navy Grumman F-14 Tomcat (a type which is no longer in the U.S. Navy inventory) Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) in Paramount Pictures’ 1986 blockbuster film Top Gun. Therefore, Amanda shared her thoughts about the tendency to compare a RIO to a WSO.

“Well,” she began, “it is Hollywood so it’s completely accurate right? Of course, Top Gun captures the more exciting aspects of the job and the execution of Basic Fighter Maneuvers [aka “dogfighting”] is always intense. The movie does capture the teamwork, camaraderie, and drive that are ingrained in fighter pilots.”

F-14D Tomcat over the Persian Gulf 10 October 2005. US Navy photo by Lt.(j.g.) Scott Timmester 051010-N-5088T-001 via Wikipedia.

A RIO could chose from four radar search modes from some dozen choices. He or she furthermore would routinely ascertain that the radar was searching the correct sector of sky. Once the RIO detected distant targets via radar or “bogies” in the vicinity by visual means, the RIO verbally directed the pilot so he or she could acquire an optimum position for firing air-to-air missiles or the internal Vulcan rapid-fire canon. A RIO could also launch long range missiles from the rear cockpit. The F-14 RIO was additionally responsible for communication and navigation, assisting the pilot with checklists, and reporting airspeed and fuel consumption and remaining load.

USAF F-16s, F-15C, amd F-15Es over Kuwait during Desert Storm. USAF Public Domain photo via Wikipedia.

In a Strike Eagle the WSO (or “wizzo”) operates state-of-the-art, air-to-ground avionics, manages multiple CRT screens that display selected information received from the search radar, monitors electronic warfare components, views Thermographic camera images, and scrutinizes aircraft systems’ functioning. The WSO evaluates potential threats, selects targets, and utilizes a GPS map to aid in navigation. Two hand controls are used to select new displays and to refine targeting information. Furthermore, and in contrast to the U.S. Navy’s former premier two-seat fighters (the F-14 Tomcat and McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II) wherein the occupant of the aft cockpit area lacked flying controls, the F-15E WSO is provided a stick and throttle to enable full piloting capability.

T-34C Turbo-Mentor. Public Domain image via Wikipedia.

Amanda Higgins reflected upon her flight training after graduating from Clemson University’s USAF ROTC detachment. Over the course of her comprehensive preparation Amanda learned to fly the Beechcraft T-34C Turbo-Mentor, subsonic Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk twin-engine turbofan advanced trainer, North American T-39 Sabreliner, and supersonic Northrop T-38 Talon advanced trainer.

T-39 Sabreliner trainer at NAS Pensacola 9 May 2002. US Navy photo by Patrick Nichols (RELEASED).

“I trained in Pensacola with the Navy initially, which was followed by a brief course at Moody Air Force Base [AFB] for Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals, and subsequently completed the F-15E Basic Course at Seymour Johnson AFB,” she stated. The F-15E was an entirely different winged machine from those Amanda had previously mastered, for the Strike Eagle represented the apex of birds of prey.

T-1 Jayhawk over Vance AFB. USAF photo 041122-F-9999W-001.JPG by Terry Wasson Public Domain image via Wikipedia.

Ms. Higgins still vividly recalls the day she first went up in an F-15E. “My first flight was more of a familiarization flight than anything. It was great in some respects because you weren’t expected to do too much on that initial flight. It was more a flight about getting to know the local area and the jet.” She added, “Our takeoff was an unrestricted climb into the neighboring airspace. Words can’t really do it justice – it was amazing!”

T-38 Talon over Edwards AFB 12 August 2010. US Department of Defense Public Domain photo via Wikipedia.

Sometimes in the F-15E she experienced airsickness, a malady shared with a few legendary aviators such as Canada’s greatest ace William Avery “Billy” Bishop. Like Bishop, Amanda determinedly persevered through the adversity.

When asked as to whether she found flying training to be enjoyable, Amanda flatly stated the following: “I really enjoyed flight training. For me, it was a bit like drinking out of a fire hose. I also thoroughly enjoyed other training classes like Survival School and Water Survival. I enjoy being challenged and the feeling of accomplishment.”

Billy Bishop inside the cockpit of his Nieuport 17 fighter in France circa August 1917 – Public Domain photo by William Rider-Rider Library and Archives Canada PA-001654 via Wikipedia.

As to her many instructors, Amanda commented that there “were many flight instructors who were memorable.” Of course,” she said, “there are the instructors who are not only great aviators but great people and mentors. There are also the instructors who push you and demand the best.”

Amanda noted that “some of her instructors were female, but most were male. Regardless of gender,” she noted, “those who were hard-working and pushed me were positive influences in my life.”

Amanda Higgins in aloft F-15E Strike Eagle. Photo: Amanda Higgins.

After earning her wings Amanda Higgins learned to be a WSO. She found herself a minority, being female, in a male dominated world of fighter jocks. What was it like to be a female WSO in the mostly male world of military aviation? Amanda reflected, “To be honest, I never really thought too much about being one of the few females. It is what it is. There wasn’t anything I could do to change it, and I was fine with that. At times, it could be lonely but I also had a lot of great times and friendships with my male coworkers. At the end of the day, we all train to be the best pilot or WSO that we can be regardless of gender or race.”

334th Fighter Squadron F-15E Strike Eagle taking off on 31 December 2010. USAF photo by Master Sgt. Brandt Smith via Wikipedia.

Amanda Higgins completed training in the 334th Fighter Squadron and was then posted to the 336th Fighter Squadron (the “Rockets”) at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base (AFB), North Carolina. After a tour as an Air Liaison Officer at Shaw AFB, South Carolina, she went to the 391st Fighter Squadron (the “Bold Tigers”) at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.”

336th F-15E patrols over Florida as Space Shuttle Atlantis launches 14 May 2010. USAF photo 100514-f-0000c-60 by Capt. John Peltier via Wikipedia.

As fate would have it, Amanda would soon find herself in harm’s way. In an article (391st Fighter Squadron set to return from Afghanistan) dated 6 January 2009 the 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs office reported that twenty F-15E Strike Eagles and hundreds of “Gunfighters” were scheduled “to return to Idaho . . . following more than four months of combat operations in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.” The text stressed that for “many of the aircrew and maintainers from the 391st Fighter Squadron’s ‘Bold Tigers’ who deployed in August 2008 to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, this marked their second time in the country over the past two years.” During their deployment, “the Bold Tigers flew more than 1,700 combat missions and accumulated approximately 7,000 flying hours while providing close-air support for U.S. and coalition ground troops engaged in combat operations throughout the country. The Bold Tigers delivered more than 131,000 pounds of ordnance and were credited with directly saving coalition ground forces on numerous occasions.”

In addition to supporting flying operations around the clock the press release additionally informed readers that 391st aircrews “also manned ground alert aircraft which remained ready for immediate takeoff.” According to the statistics provided, during their time in Afghanistan the squadron launched alert aircraft more than twenty times.

F-15E Strike Eagle from the 391st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, launches heat decoys over Afghanistan. USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon via Wikipedia.

One particularly memorable mission occurred while Amanda Higgins was on 30-minute ground alert. “The siren went off,” she said, “signaling that some ground troops needed help.” Amanda elaborated, “When notified by a siren, you gear up as quickly as possible and run at a full sprint to the jet. In those situations everyone – the crew and the maintenance team hustles. And of course the Air Traffic Control Tower makes the alert aircraft the priority for takeoff. Launching as soon as possible is truly a team effort and everyone does what they can to expedite the mission. We took off as fast as we could and got to the troops who were in contact with the terrorist forces quickly.” She concluded, “We didn’t drop any bombs that day, but we did make a bit of noise and that was enough to keep our troops safe.” Indeed, the article 391st Fighter Squadron set to return from Afghanistan cites officials as confirming her summation with this statement: “This immediate response made a life or death difference to ambushed and outnumbered ground troops on many occasions. . . .”

F-15E front cockpit panel 13 September 2008. USAF Public Domain photo via Wikipedia.

Did Amanda ever experience trepidation in a combat environment? “I never felt that way personally,” she said. “We trained so much that there weren’t any situations that I felt like I wasn’t prepared for. In fact, there is typically so much training leading up to a deployment that you feel ready and excited to go.”

Amanda Higgins in F-15E cockpit. Photo courtesy of Amanda Higgins.

One often hears veterans referring to the motivations relating to “God, family, and country” and espousing that, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Amanda Higgins confessed that she is not overly religious but is spiritual. She elaborated on her response. “I believe actions have consequences and karma can come back to bite you.  I think everything happens for a reason, we just don’t always know why. It’s okay to not have all the answers. I do believe in God, I love America and I love my family; I will always defend my country and my family.”

In December of 2000 Amanda Higgins said farewell to USAF active duty. She then joined the Air National Guard (ANG), and over the past eight years has been a member of the Washington ANG, Utah ANG, and Pennsylvania ANG.

F-15E Strike Eagle takes off 14 July 2003 from RAF Lakenheath to support Operation Iraqi Freedom. USAF photo by Staff Sgt. William Greer 030714-F-3873G-011 via Wikipedia.

What life lessons were learned by Amanda Higgins as a result of her time in the F-15E and USAF? “That’s a tough question,” she replied. “Of course, there are many life lessons from my military experience. I wasn’t the smartest or most talented, but I did have a lot of determination and perseverance. I can’t stand the phrase ‘I can’t’ and I have pushed myself and created goals, as I’m always trying to become a better person. Additionally, accountability, punctuality, and being responsible are all great things that the military service instilled in me.”

One would think Amanda would miss the roar generated and the “kick” provided by the powerplants as the afterburners are lit. Does she miss the F-15E or being on active duty in the U.S. Air Force? “I do miss the camaraderie and teamwork.  I miss having an impact on the Global War on Terror and contributing to the safety of our country,” she confessed.

F-15E releasing a GBU laser-guided bomb. Original Source unknown.

Amanda Higgins is representative of a small cadre of female fighter pilots, and as such she possesses opinions about how women may be more frequently retained in military, commercial, and general aviation. “I didn’t become a mother until I left active duty; I have a huge respect for mothers in the service who are juggling military life, deployments and raising a family.  Overall, we can do a much better job as a country supporting young families – both mothers and fathers – during the birth of a child.” she stated.  “Additionally, we need more mentors for children as they decide what careers to pursue and the different avenues to which they can achieve their goals.”

The day prior to this interview was Memorial Day in the United States, and Veterans Day is a few months in the future. Amanda Higgins shared a few thoughts and opinions about these solemn days and our fallen American military personnel. “My children are very small, but yesterday I talked to them about all the men and women who have sacrificed their lives so that we can live in a free country. I feel blessed every day that I was born in America and was privileged to serve our great nation.”

And now, after serving the United States militarily Amanda Higgins has a second career with the Black Rifle Coffee Company. Describing how the veteran-founded firm enabled her to flourish she stressed that “BRCC has been really great to me.” Amanda added, “I’m thankful for the wonderful opportunities BRCC has extended. I had the opportunity to set up the roastery in Salt Lake City and I was given the opportunity as a General Manager to establish our new facility in Manchester, Tennessee. The project in Tennessee is a great fit – I really enjoy operations and project management, and I love being back in the Southeast. This is a good location for my family and me.”

During her tenure at BRCC Amanda has learned that she “really enjoys setting projects from the ground up.” Obviously, her job is not the typical daily grind. She is blessed.


The author (John T. Stemple) thanks Amanda Higgins, the Black Rifle Coffee Company, and Bomber Command Museum of Canada for their cooperation and assistance during the preparation of this article. Military Aviation Chronicles wishes all three continued success. Readers who wish to learn about John Boyd should read Robert Coram’s excellent book Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.

Suggested Viewings

Sources and Suggested Readings

334th Fighter Squadron


336th Fighter Squadron


391st Fighter Squadron


391st Fighter Squadron set to return from Afghanistan




AIM-9 Sidewinder




Air National Guard

Airframe: The F-15 Eagle




Beechcraft T-34 Mentor




In the 1970s, bell-bottoms moved back into mainstream fashion

Billy Bishop


Billy Bishop


Boeing F-15

Coram, Robert. Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War , New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, 2002.

F-15 Eagle


Grumman F-14 Tomcat


Guided Bomb Unit-24 (GBU-24) Paveway III



John Boyd (military strategist)


M61 Vulcan


Maria Muldaur


Maria Muldaur – Midnight at the Oasis Lyrics


McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle


McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle

McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle


Midnight at the Oasis


Motion Sickness


North American Sabreliner

Northrop T-38 Talon


Operation Chastise


Operation CHASTISE – the attack on the Ruhr dams


Operation Chastise – The Dam Busters


Operation Chastise: The Dambusters raid


Operation Chastise: Night of the Dambusters


Operation Enduring Freedom

Pratt & Whitney F100


Raytheon T-1 Jayhawk


Soviet Union


T-1A Jayhawk

T-34C Turbo-Mentor

T-39N/G Sabreliner training aircraft

The Byrds


The Dambusters – 75th Anniversary Commemoration


The Dambusters: ‘Operation Chastise’ remembered 75 years on


Top Gun


Turn! Turn! Turn!


Warsaw Pact


Weapon systems officer


William Avery Bishop