The Air Force is reviving its storied “William Tell” aerial shooting competition with an eye on the Pacific, as the service renews its focus on air-to-air combat after decades of ground warfare.
It’s been 19 years since the Air Force last convened the biennial air-to-air weapons meet, which began in the early days of the Cold War in 1954.
The competition is named for the legend of William Tell, a 14th-century Swiss farmer who — as the tale goes — had to fire an arrow so accurately that it would knock an apple from his son’s head, lest they both be killed for insulting the Austrian Habsburg empire.
For decades, the shootout provided a stage for ambitious fighter pilots to show off their skills for bragging rights, a trophy and the title of “Top Gun.”
The Air Force has held just one William Tell competition in the 27 years since it paused the regular meets in 1996. The event reconvened for its 50th anniversary in 2004, before the War on Terror spurred a 19-year hiatus.
Now with U.S. forces out of Afghanistan and a substantially smaller footprint in Iraq and Syria, the Air Force is turning its attention to a faster-paced, more complex kind of air war.
This year’s William Tell, slated for Sept. 11-15 at Savannah Air National Guard Base in Georgia, will reflect military competition in the Indo-Pacific — namely, the U.S.-China rivalry — posed by savvier enemy pilots, high-tech jets and advanced anti-aircraft artillery.
F-35 Lightning II, F-22 Raptor and F-15 Eagle units will go head-to-head in a gauntlet of simulated air combat scenarios, weapons loading, maintenance and weapons director competitions.
Fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft will act as the adversarial “red team,” Air Combat Command spokesperson Mike Reeves told Air Force Times. It’s unclear whether William Tell will bring in the Air Force’s red air contractors like Top Aces and Textron subsidiary ATAC, which fly the F-16 Fighting Falcon and Mirage F1 jets, or turn to drone targets like the remote-controlled QF-16s.
Pilots will be tested on their offensive and defensive prowess against simulated enemy air forces, and on how well they maneuver when an adversary aircraft is in sight.
“There will be a heritage event with live air-to-air gun employment against a towed banner,” Reeves said. “There will also be … weapons loading, command and control, and intelligence competitions.”
Wings across Air Combat Command and Pacific Air Forces are allowed to send teams of 10 to 14 airmen, depending on the type of aircraft. Each team needs one captain, an aircrew of up to eight people, two intelligence airmen and three weapons loaders. Command-and-control wings can also send three members apiece to participate.
Participants will compete for individual and team awards. The group that best thinks outside the box in collaborating with other jets will be crowned the top “fighter integration team,” to show that the aircraft are “most lethal when used as a cohesive fighting force,” Reeves said.
Planners hope the resurgence of William Tell will help prepare airmen for real-life combat operations in the Indo-Pacific, where they could face off against Chinese jets like the J-16 fighter that buzzed an American RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance plane on May 26.
The U.S. considers China its top strategic threat and has pledged to protect Taiwan, the autonomous island nation that Beijing claims as its own territory, if China were to invade.
“Our unwavering commitment to air dominance remains steadfast,” Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark Kelly said in a release. “We reiterate our steadfast dedication to maintaining control of the skies in support of our joint force and multinational partners.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.