William Tell—USAF’s Ultimate Fighter Contest—is Back, After 19 Years

The best air and ground crews from across the Air Force fighter enterprise will compete at the Air Dominance Center in Savannah, Ga., in September at the 2023 William Tell Air-to-Air Weapons Meet, the first fighter competition of its kind in nearly two decades.

“If you’re into football, this is the Super Bowl, if you’re into baseball, this is the World Series, and if you’re into golf, this is the Masters Tournament,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Thomas, commander of the the Air Dominance Center, in a July 27 press release. “The airspace we have here on our coast is a national treasure and will allow the competing pilots the ability to operate to their absolute full potential to show who is truly the best of the best.”

About 800 Airmen are expected to participate, Air Combat Command told Air & Space Forces Magazine, representing nine squadrons from the Active, Guard, and Reserve components. Among them will be:

Air Combat Command:

  • F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., and 366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho
  • F-22 Raptors from the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
  • F-35 Lightning IIs from the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill AFB, Utah
  • Command and Control from the 552 Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.

Pacific Air Forces:

  • F-22 Raptors from the 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and the 154th Fighter Wing, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI
  • Command and Control from the 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and the 18th Wing, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan

Air National Guard:

  • F-15 C/D Eagles from the 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass.
  • F-35 Lightning IIs from the 158th Fighter Wing, Burlington ANGB, Vt.

Aircrews will test each other’s offensive and defensive skills against simulated enemy aircraft. Ground crews will compete in loading weapons, maintaining aircraft, and intelligence operations. Fans and observers can track the action by following scoreboard announcements posted each evening on social media, the release said.

“We want our community to be excited about this upcoming event and include them as much as possible,” said Thomas. “Although this event will not be open to the public, there will be plenty of jet sighting opportunities in the local area as well as photo and video coverage of the event published for public viewing.”

An F-22 Raptor assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida takes off from the Air Dominance Center for an air combat exercise at Sentry Savannah on May 10, 2022. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Erica Webster)

While individual and team awards are on the line, planners said the most important objective is to practice controlling the skies for future conflict.

“Air Superiority is not [an] American birth right—it’s a constant fight,” said Maj. Kyle Brown, the competition director, in an April release. “William Tell 2023 is about resurrecting our heritage, sending us your champions, and competing.”

From 1954 to 1996, William Tell was a biennial competition, but budget cuts in the wake of the Cold War ended the practice in the 1990s. With the exception of a 2004 revival to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first contest, William Tell was finished—until now. USAF’s renewed focus on China as a peer adversary fighting in highly contested airspace is the inspiration for bringing William Tell back to life. 

“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 multi-national partners,” Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, said in April.

If history is any guide, this promises to be an intense competition. The 2004 meet came down to the wire before a Pacific Air Forces team from Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, pulled ahead on the very last flight. PACAF’s Capt. Pete Fesler, an F-15 pilot, took home the Top Gun title after earning the highest individual scores in the meet.

“We never expected a team to walk away with it, and nobody did walk away with it,” said Lt. Col. Ed Nagler, the 2004 competition director, in a release at the time. “It was incredibly close from the beginning to the end.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the story reported that the 354th Fighter Wing from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska is participating in William Tell. It no longer plans on participating.