CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa -- Capt. Jonathan Mahan is the stereotypical fighter pilot: calm, confident, with a steely gaze and a sharp sense of humor. He has a cool nickname and a mustache so perfectly groomed that it would make "Top Gun" character Goose proud.
Its members constantly train to keep their combat skills sharp in case they are called upon by their Japanese allies to defend the island nation or maintain air superiority in the Asia-Pacific.
Monday marks the 35th anniversary of the tactical fighters' arrival on Okinawa, and despite the aircraft's age, upgrades have continued to make it one of the most reliable platforms in the U.S. air arsenal.
"It's the best at what it does," Mahan said of the McDonnell Douglas Corp. fighter. "It can perform well with just about anything today. We're training against stuff that's being built right now."
For Mahan -- dubbed "River" for his Texas hold 'em poker luck -- being an F-15C Eagle fighter pilot is a dream come true.
"It's like an old muscle car," Mahan said affectionately. "It handles pretty awesome. It can keep up with pretty much everything you can throw at it."
The Asia-Pacific is like a high-stakes game of poker, with allies like Japan and South Korea sitting at a table with potential adversaries like North Korea, China and Russia. There's a lot at stake, so the Fighting Cocks and their comrades in the 44th Fighter Squadron are constantly training for combat.
"I don't think everyone realizes that here in Okinawa, we're in everyone's backyard," Mahan said.
Lt. Col. William Denham, the 67th Fighter Squadron commander, said the threats in the region are real.
"I think if you look at East Asia altogether and the potentials for conflict that you see in the news ... there is a huge potential for conflict in this area, so the U.S. presence here with the Air Force and our joint partners makes a big difference in providing stability," he said. "So there's not one specific threat we're concerned about; there's a number of them."
The F-15's age certainly hasn't made it any less potent over the years.
"We like to talk about our air-to-air combat record in the F-15 being 104-0, and that is a record that no other aircraft in history has ever had," Denham said. "We have continued to upgrade it, so especially with our radar today and the modern weapons that we carry, it is still an extremely lethal airplane."
The standard payload for the $29.9 million F-15C on a combat sortie is six AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles and two AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles, in addition to an internally mounted canon, according to Air Force fact sheets.
The first F-15A flight came in July 1972, according to Air Force histories. Four years later, the first Eagle destined for a combat squadron was delivered.
On Sept. 29, 1979, 18 F-15Cs from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia arrived at Kadena for the 67th Fighter Squadron, whose history in combat stretches back to Guadalcanal, Korea and Vietnam.
The base newspaper exclaimed, the "F-15 Eagle is landing."
Since then, the Eagle has proudly maintained air superiority in the Asia-Pacific, eventually giving way largely to Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-15 pilots, who currently fly the intercepts of foreign aircraft infringing on Japanese airspace.
Now, the Kadena jets are what Mahan calls the "break glass in case of emergency" option.
The Fighting Cocks work in close concert with the Japanese. Deployments have ranged from Singapore to the Mideast to Florida in recent years, Mahan said.
Next month, they will be on the Japanese mainland for exercises with the JASDF pilots. They will also train with them on Guam in February.
The reliable choice
Throughout history, new fighter models have rolled off stateside assembly lines seemingly every few years, depending on the day's technology, wars and threats, according to outgoing Kadena historian Casey Connell. However, thanks to its reliability as a maneuverable bomber and fighter, as well as timely upgrades, the F-15 Eagle always remained the go-to aircraft to maintain air superiority.
"What's interesting is the evolution of fighter aircraft in U.S. history," Connell said. "For the F-15 to last 35 years of service is pretty remarkable."
Mahan likes the F-15 because there are a lot fewer automatic systems than in the newer aircraft, so finesse makes flying it an art form. When he buckles in, he feels like the fighter becomes an extension of his body as he reaches speeds of upward of Mach 2 and heights of 50,000 feet.
Denham likes the Eagle because it is easy to fly and has high survivability in combat. He described how an Israeli F-15 had a wing almost entirely sheared off in a midair collision in the 1980s and was still able to land.
"As far as a combat survivable airplane, it is hands-down probably the best design that we still come up with, and it's been tested in combat," he said.
The Fighting Cocks currently hold the Air Force's Raytheon Trophy, which is awarded annually to the top-ranked air superiority and air defense squadron. Participants are graded on a multitude of factors, from mission performance to inspection results.
Despite the rise and rollout of the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-15 Eagle isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It will remain an Air Force fixture for at least another 10 years and possibly even longer, according to Air Force fact sheets and members of the Fighting Cocks.
"There are a lot of new platforms," Denham said.
"No one expected the F-15 to be around this long, but the longer they continue to test the airframe and do in-depth analysis, they've continued to find that we are still viable to the fight, and where that ends, nobody really knows at this point."