Eagles Over Iraq

Flying the F-15 to victory in Desert Storm.

F-15C over Iraq
An F-15C flies over Iraq in August 2020.

Rick Tollini, a retired U.S. Air Force captain, has written Call-Sign KLUSO, a memoir that details his life as a fighter pilot. His intent in joining the Air Force was to accumulate enough hours to become an airline pilot, but getting selected to fly the F-15C changed his plans. Tollini’s affection for the F-15 is apparent, but it’s also clear he loved everything about being a fighter pilot—from the frequent overseas deployments to the fellowship of flying combat missions with his squadron. Tollini spoke with Air & Space senior associate editor Diane Tedeschi in August.

Air & Space: How did you get your call sign?

Tollini: My cheesy mustache and evident resemblance to Peter Sellers in his Inspector Clouseau role apparently made the choice a natural for me. Knowing that a call-sign will normally remain with a fighter pilot his entire career, I felt grateful for the call-sign “Kluso.” Believe me, it could’ve been worse.

What is your opinion of the F-15?

The F-15C is not only legendary, it is also still—in the hands of an experienced fighter pilot—an extremely capable air superiority platform.

What were your impressions of your first combat flight?

Chapter 8 of my book goes into great detail on our engagement of two Iraqi MiG-25 Foxbats (along with my wingman, Larry “Cherry” Pitts). It was surreal in many ways, but also the value of my training made itself evident in the execution of the engagement, which ended in a close-range visual fight with two very experienced Foxbat pilots. The speed and tempo of the fight was offset by our superior training: We didn’t have to think while fighting, but just let the training take over and execute intuitively.

Do you ever miss flying the F-15?

I am often asked this question, and my answer is always: “No, I don’t miss the flying part, but I do miss the camaraderie of a fighter squadron.”

What was your favorite—for the simple joy of flying—aerobatic maneuver in the F-15?

That’s not an easy question to answer, but I would have to say a big lazy barrel-roll. It encompassed all three axes of maneuvering: pitch, lateral, and yaw. The F-15 is such a graceful jet—I think it best exemplified that beauty in flight.

What was your go-to air combat maneuver in the F-15?

In the realm of Basic Fighter Maneuvers—BFM, a one-versus-one fight in a visual environment—I would say it had to be a maneuver that came to be called the “Ditch.” It was a defensive vertical split-S maneuver intended to get the offensive fighter out of synch with the defender’s turn circle and timing. As with many BFM maneuvers, it only worked if executed expertly under the right conditions and at the right time.

How important is air superiority?

I am well aware, over the course of a 35-plus-year career in the air superiority community, of the challenges the U.S. Air Force has faced in the past and will continue to face in the future. The number one thing I hope the Air Force never loses sight of is the absolute need for air superiority as the core foundation of everything else the Air Force does. If we ever lose sight of that—and I am afraid the signs have been pointing in that direction—then the potential for disaster will be ever present.

You are now an F-15 instructor pilot at Kadena Air Base in Japan. What is the most important thing you can teach your students?

I have always loved to instruct and help young fighter pilots elevate themselves to be ready for the uncertainties of combat. I am grateful I have been able to continue this to some extent as a civilian—at the F-15C Mission Training Center simulators at Kadena. What I try to instill is what I was taught as a young Eagle driver: Set high standards for yourself and those around you. Always seek improvement at every stage of your career regardless of past success or achievements—the goal is intuitive expertise for yourself and your unit.

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