William Tell Has Fighter Pilots Competing For Trophies Once Again

The legendary William Tell fighter competition is back after nearly two decades for a whole new era of air combat.

byJamie Hunter|
William Tell Air Force


William Tell is back. One of the U.S. Air Force’s most famous and storied air combat training events is being held September 11-15, 2023, at the Air Dominance Center in Savannah, Georgia. The week-long event is returning after a 19-year hiatus and this new iteration is not your father's William Tell of yesteryear. Major changes to the competition reflect accelerating advances in air combat, but the spirit of the event will very much remain the same.

Editor's Note: Welcome to the first of our three-part series on the rebirth of William Tell. We will be on the ground at the Air Dominance Center in Savannah this week getting a first-hand account of this unique and historic exercise as it unfolds.

2023's William Tell will feature nine teams that include some of the top fighter crews from across the USAF. They will pit their skills against one another and against ‘Red Air’ aggressor aircraft in a series of scenarios. Unlike many other well-known exercises such as Red Flag or Sentry Savannah, William Tell is a true competition. This air combat training event is the closest the U.S. has to what was seen in the fictional movie Top Gun, in that crews really have to battle it out for top scores — although these are U.S. Air Force crews, not Navy ones. There are a range of trophies that will be brought home to the units of the winning teams, and – as the movie joked – there are no prizes for second place!

The crest/patch for William Tell 2023. USAF

The teams competing will also include maintainers and weapons specialists who will face off in weapons loading competitions. Intelligence personnel and command and control specialists will also compete for prestigious awards. William Tell also features a number of other embedded events that are designed to encourage a culture of excellence among America’s top fighter squadrons.

“We’re bringing back William Tell after 19 years, and this year is actually the 69th anniversary of the very first William Tell exercise,” Maj. Garrett “Dodge” Getschow, William Tell Exercise Director, told The War Zone. “Since the last William Tell in 2004 [which was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the exercise] the climate and global landscape has changed massively. Back then the focus was on the Central Command region [in the Middle East], but now with the increase in the threat from near-peer adversaries, we want to refocus towards air-to-air supremacy and remind the nation that this is our focus and that we are the best of the best.”

F-22s from the 1st Fighter Wing, which is the host unit for William Tell 2023. Jamie Hunter

The William Tell planning team hopes that the event will help to promote the exchange of tactics and better prepare USAF wings for future combat operations. “Our unwavering commitment to air dominance remains steadfast, as we pursue and push the boundaries of innovation and excellence,” Gen. Mark Kelly, the commander of Air Combat Command, said in a media release. “As we participate in the long-awaited return of the William Tell competition, we reiterate our steadfast dedication to maintaining control of the skies in support of our Joint Force and multinational partners.”

Named after the legendary Swiss archer, the very first William Tell was held in 1954. However, it traces its roots back to the USAF Aerial Gunnery Competition, which was held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, in 1949. That very first competition was won by a team from the 332nd Fighter Group, “Tuskegee Airmen,” and it included the now Lt. Col. (Ret.) James Harvey III, who was part of the team that won the first “Top Gun” award. Harvey recently celebrated his 100th birthday and will be a guest of honor at this year’s event.

The four winning "Tuskegee Airmen" with the original “Top Gun” trophy in 1949. USAF
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William Tell has always been designed to embody the spirit and excellence of aerial combat. Right from the very first Aerial Gunnery Competition in 1949, precision and tactical excellence were the keys to victory. Indeed, Lt. Col. Harvey and his team became a shining example for fellow fighter pilots to aspire to. Mastering gun employment and using valid dogfighting tactics in fighters such as the P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang were as important to lethality back then as an F-35 pilot leveraging the most out of an AIM-120 AMRAAM beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air missile is today.

The inaugural William Tell in 1954 was held at the dawn of the jet age, at Yuma County Airport in Arizona, before it moved to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in 1958. It was designed to replicate real combat scenarios and earned the reputation as a pinnacle of air combat training and as an enduring means of fostering camaraderie.

An F-106A Delta Dart of the New Jersey Air National Guard, firing an AIM-4 missile during William Tell '84. USAF
The packed flightline during William Tell '82. USAF
Pilots scramble to their F-4C Phantom II on alert during exercise William Tell '80. USAF
USAF weapons loaders carry an AIM-9 Sidewinder to an F-4 Phantom II during William Tell 1986. USAF
An F-106A Delta Dart at the William Tell 1984 weapons meet. USAF

William Tell ran from 1954 to 1996 as a biennial competition until post-Cold War budget cuts forced its demise. Technological advances pushed aspects of the event to evolve over the years. Just the many types of ever-more complex fighters that took part over the four decades of its continuous exaction tell that story. By the time it matured in the missile age, it was notable for its live gunnery and missile shots, while maintainers fought for top position on the ground. At its height it also included participation by the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Personnel from the 119th Fighter Wing North Dakota Air National Guard with winning trophies at William Tell 1970. USAF
Maj. Robert Edlund of the 119th Fighter Wing, North Dakota Air National Guard, with his "Top Gun" trophy at William Tell 1994. USAF

Winning teams were revered throughout the USAF, with trophies being prominently displayed back home. The importance placed on William Tell by the USAF was manifested in rows of fighters, such as F-4 Phantom IIs and F-106 Delta Darts, on the flight line at Tyndall in the exercise's heyday. Units came from far and wide to participate, which helped to cement its reputation as one of the world's greatest air combat exercises.

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William Tell 2023 is a modern iteration of the exercise, reflecting the latest fourth and fifth generation fighter tactics and real-world threats. It is hosted by the 1st Fighter Wing and will draw upon the heritage of the competition in a plan to encourage fighter squadron culture with a series of air power briefings and recollections from significant guests.

“William Tell 2023 is about resurrecting our heritage, sending us your champions, and competing,” Maj. Kyle Brown, from the William Tell organizational team, said in a media release.

The nine teams at William Tell 2023 are drawn from three F-22 Raptor fighter wings, three Eagle wings (an F-15C team and two F-15E teams), and three F-35A wings. 

F-15 Eagle

• F-15C/D, 104th FW, Barnes ANGB, Massachusetts.

• F-15E, 4th FW, Seymour Johnson AFB.

• F-15E, 366th FW, Mountain Home AFB.

F-22 Raptor

• F-22, 1st FW, JB Langley-Eustis.

• F-22, 3rd Wing, JB Elmendorf-Richardson.

• F-22, 154th FW, JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam

F-35 Lightning II

• F-35A, 388th FW, Hill AFB

• F-35A, 419th FW, Hill AFB

• F-35A, 158th FW, Burlington ANGB

“Back in the day, William Tell was held at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, and it was part of the Weapons System Evaluation Program [WSEP], so they were actually able to fire live missiles,” explains Maj. Getschow. “It would be amazing if we could do that again one day, but for this year’s event each team will be able to employ the gun at a banner that is towed by a Learjet."

QF-100 Super Sabre target drones ready to launch during William Tell 88. USAF

“They would also judge the teams on maintenance and execute scramble launches to see how quick they got airborne,” Maj. Getschow continues. “At William Tell 2023 we are running the weapons-loading competition, and this tests combat lethality. We are trying to replicate as much as we can with what was done historically.” Wing maintainers will also compete and be judged on every single mission launch.

“Of the nine teams, each MDS [Mission Design Series – aircraft type] will compete against each other in the weapons load competitions. So, on Monday the F-22s will compete against each other in the weapons loading, the F-35s will follow on Tuesday, and the F-15s on Wednesday. The winners from each round will go forward to a final on Thursday across the three MDS to find the overall winner.”

A weapons loading competition will be undertaken by the nine teams at William Tell 2023. Jamie Hunter

The weapons loading teams will need to balance speed and accuracy, drawing closely on their training to follow technical and safety procedures. A media release from the 4th Fighter Wing stated that at William Tell 2023, “the F-15E load crews will hang four AMRAAM radar-guided air-to-air missiles and two Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missiles. At any time in the load, evaluators deduct points for technical or safety deviations.”

“Each team has three people: a ‘one-man’ who leads the effort; a ‘two-man’ who prepares the racks and rails on the aircraft where the weapons will hang, and a ‘three-man’ who drives the jammer, a small lift truck for carrying weapons, and loads the weapons on to the plane with the help of the ‘one-man’.”

Fighter types will go head-to-head to see who fights best within visual range. Jamie Hunter

On the flying side, William Tell 2023 events include Within Visual Range (WVR) 1-v-1 Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM, aka dogfighting) between similar types (for example F-22 versus F-22) and 2-v-2 Air Combat Maneuvering. These will all be graded by the 28-strong evaluation team and will result in individual awards for the top team from each fighter type.

“Of the five-person aircrew team, there’s a team captain who won’t fly, there’s two instructor pilots [IPs], a flight lead, and a wingman,” explains Getschow. “The F-15Es also have their Weapons Systems Operators. Each team also has a two-person intel team, and a three-person weapons load team. There’s additionally three-person command and control teams from Kadena, Tinker, and Elmendorf, who will conduct ground-based C2 [command and control] out of 117th Air Control Squadron at Hunter Army Air Field [Georgia], to control the fight.” 

“Monday is BFM day, and everyone will fly against their paired qualification, so the IPs will fly against each other, etc. Then from Tuesday to Thursday we have Fighter Integration in the morning, and ACM in the afternoon.”

Fighter Integration and teamwork is one of the main elements of William Tell 2023. Jamie Hunter

Fighter Integration is seen as a key component of the modern William Tell, and it will involve the various fighter types working in teams in concert with ground-based command and control.

The Fighter Integration component will see missions of 4+4+4-v-multiple aggressors, comprised of F-16Cs from the 64th Aggressor Squadron, T-38s from the 7th Fighter Training Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, plus the evaluation team flying ‘Red Air’ tactics in F-15s, F-22s, and F-35s. The scoring plan for this element of William Tell is closely held, and the evaluation team won’t release the scoring protocol until the final day of the exercise when the results are announced. However, it’s expected to be built around valid simulated missile shots and associated tactics, as well as winning or losing the mission itself.

“We really wanted to focus on the team aspect and working as a cohesive fighting force for this William Tell,” said Getschow. “The Fighter Integration element has a short mission planning window, and they’ll only have a couple of hours to build their team, plan the tactics, and — based on the threat understanding — come up with a game plan.”

The top award for William Tell 2023 is the Gen. Richard I. Bong Fighter Integration Award, named after the World War II ace. In addition to the main Fighter Integration trophy, there will also be F-15, F-22, and F-35 top wing, top intel team, weapons loading, and best maintenance team trophies.

“William Tell is a great chance for our team to showcase their capabilities in a realistic and demanding air combat environment,” said Col. Morgan Lohse, 4th Operations Group Commander, in a media release. “Air Dominance is a team sport, from the maintainers who generate the jets, to the weapons loaders who ensure we have the right munitions, to the pilots and WSOs who fly the missions. It takes a capable team on the ground and in the air to secure the skies.”

The team from Hill AFB that has been selected for William Tell. USAF

“The pilots in the squadrons are pretty excited about it,” commented Capt. Spencer Thompson, an F-35A pilot from the 34th Fighter Squadron and the 388th FW project officer for William Tell. “What other event in the Air Force do you get to compete against other pilots in your same platform and get graded in things like a live-gun banner shoot over the ocean?”

The return of William Tell was aided by a group of retired senior F-15 Eagle pilots who championed its value to USAF leadership. Triple MiG-killer Col. (Ret.) Cesar “Rico” Rodriguez explained how he and his friends Terry “SkinS” Fornof and Steve “Buick” Olds used their Aviation Warriors initiative to help rekindle enthusiasm and ultimately realize the return of William Tell.

“Although I didn’t personally attend a William Tell in my career, as young F-15 pilots we all learned so much from the briefings and debriefings. William Tell was a great opportunity to grow tactical strength at a squadron level, and it translated into the victories of Desert Storm and Kosovo. At 'Willy Tell' 2023 the teams will be challenged in a very different way to how we were challenged in Desert Storm but it provides a goal to train towards, with that same ethos and squadron culture.”

A Michigan Air National Guard F-4C engaaged in the weapons loading competition at William Tell 84. USAF

“If you look specifically at Desert Storm, the miss-fire ratio in shots that were seen in combat reflected what happened at Tyndall during WSEP. The teams that had the fewest misfires also did great on the maintenance competition. So there’s a powerful connection between the maintainers preparing the jet for launch and the weapons loaders to properly load each weapon and the success of the pilot. It proves that it’s a full team effort, and that’s what we want to capture in William Tell 2023.”

To remain relevant, and keep in-step with the latest Air Force doctrine and operational priorities, exercises have to evolve to meet current needs. For instance, Red Flag recently expanded out from its typical operating ground in the Nevada desert to longer-range missions over the Pacific. It reflected the kind of long-range over-water missions that the USAF could encounter in the event of a conflict with China.

William Tell returns with a similar evolution, with Fighter Integration – working as a honed, cohesive team – being the top award and most relevant to the modern era. This kind of realistic, relevant, exercise helps to best prepare the USAF for what is expected to come over the horizon.

“Rico” Rodriguez advocates for this approach. “It didn't matter who the enemy was that showed up on January 16, 1991, we were gonna kick their ass, and it was thanks to all those exercises we flew back then, including William Tell!”

In our next installment from inside William Tell, we will be on the scene in Savannah to see the action firsthand as the teams battle it out for top recognition.

Editor's note: Our sponsorship partner has no editorial involvement in this article.

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com