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35 Years Ago, This Pilot Flying a F-15 Fighter Jet Became 1st Person to Destroy a Satellite in Space

By: Anirudh SK

Edited By: Anirudh SK


Last Updated: August 02, 2020, 11:45 IST

F-15 With the  ASM-135 missile. (Image source: Task and Purpose)

F-15 With the ASM-135 missile. (Image source: Task and Purpose)

The tale of Maj. Gen. Doug Pearson shooting down a satellite with an F-15 is probably the one that's told the most in the US Air Force and here's how he pulled it off.

The date September 13, 1985 marks as an important day in history. One, because Super Mario Bros was released for the first time in Nintendo in Japan and two, because of a US Air Force Mission that involved destroying a satellite with a fighter plane. And if the latter made you clench your pearls, that is exactly what we’re going to talk about today.

35 years ago, Maj. Gen. Wilbert “Doug” Pearson Jr. put a rather prominent blip in the history of defence aviation after carrying out the first and the only mission that involved destroying a satellite with an Air Force fighter plane. After months of preparation, Pearson took a steep climb in the air at near super-sonic speeds on September 13 for a highly classified mission. The pilot was tasked with destroying a satellite in the earth’s orbit.

Like they say in every other Hollywood movie, the 80s were wild. This was the time when the Soviet Union had developed a robust capability of putting up very small satellites that could keep tabs on the whereabouts of the US military forces, primarily their ships. The US which then had an upper hand in defence, being capable of showing up a couple of hundred miles off of someone’s coast, was intimidated by the tiny satellite. Majorly, because the same satellites robbed them of their element of surprise.

About 320km off the coast of Southern California, Pearson took off with an ASM-135 missile attached to his F-15. At the time of the take-off, the target satellite was about 3200km west. One of the major complexities involved in the mission was that the calculations had to be extremely accurate, considering that the target satellite orbits in space at around 28,968kmph.

Maj. Gen. Wilbert “Doug” Pearson Jr. (Image source: Task and Purpose)

The mission’s highly classified nature was among one of the reasons why Pearson had to fly blind. Crucial mission details could not be transmitted in real-time as the Vandenberg Air Force Base was not using a secure channel. At 38,100 feet, Pearson launched the missile, which blew through two rocket stages as it departed from our atmosphere. It then released a miniature homing missile that locked on the satellite’s infrared image and rammed it at 24,140 kmph at 555km above the surface.

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Before taking off, Pearson levelled with his friend Scott who worked in the control room. The two had agreed that at 36,000 feet Pearson would ask if the altitude was okay. If Scott replied that it was a good altitude, it would mean that the mission was a success or else he’ll know that he missed.

However, when the time came, Pearson did not have to wait for a signal. “When Scott keyed the microphone, he couldn’t get a word out because all the screaming and yelling at the control room totally overrode him,” Pearson said in an interview with Task and Purpose.

The mission is still lionised as one of the most daring ones in the history of US Air Force. The decision behind choosing an airplane was because you don’t exactly know where the target was going to appear. A ship cannot move fast enough and a ground-based system can prove to be utterly unreliable. In both cases, the target must appear right on top of it. However, an airplane can have a range of about 800km.

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