Eventually both the Navy and Air Force were satisfied with their planes.
Key Point: Politics is the primary reason the F-15 ended up in the Air Force.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a Dynamic Duo symbolized U.S. military airpower. The Air Force had its powerful F-15 Eagle air superiority fighter. But the Navy had the sophisticated swing-wing F-14 Tomcat, glamorized by the movie Top Gun.
Yet had events worked out differently, the aircraft that Tom Cruise flew could have been an… F-15 Eagle?
For a time, the Navy actually considered a carrier version of the F-15. The F-15N, or “Sea Eagle” as it was unofficially dubbed, was proposed by McDonnell Douglas in 1971, according to author Dennis Jenkins in his “McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle: Supreme Heavy-Weight Fighter.”
The Sea Eagle would require some modifications, such as folding wings and stronger landing gear. But McDonnell Douglas’s position was that “due to its excellent thrust-to-weight ratio and good visibility, the F-15 could easily be adapted for carrier operations,” Jenkins writes.
For a sketch of what the Sea Eagle might have looked like, go here.
The early 1970s were an opportune time for McDonnell Douglas (now part of Boeing) to make its pitch. The F-14, first deployed in 1974, was under fire because of the troublesome and underpowered Pratt & Whitney TF30 engines initially fitted to the fighter. Nor did the price tag help: An F-14 cost $38 million in 1998 dollars, versus $28 million for the Air Force’s F-15A.
The F-15N would probably have been faster and more maneuverable than the F-14, as well as cheaper. But the carrier modifications would have rendered the Sea Eagle 3,000 pounds heavier than the land-based version. Perhaps more important, the initial F-15N design was only armed with Sidewinder and Sparrow air-to-air missiles as well as a cannon. What it didn’t have was the long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missile that the Navy counted on to stop Soviet bombers well before they could attack the fleet.