There was a distinctly different feeling in the air. The Air Force holds dozens of major training exercises every year, from Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., to multinational events in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
But the return of the William Tell Air-to-Air Weapons Meet at the Air Dominance Center in Savannah, Ga., in September was something entirely different, a throwback to an earlier era and the anointing of something new.
“Right from the time you set foot down there and we landed the jets, we started seeing all the other aircraft and meeting the other competitors, and you felt that spirit of competition,” said an F-22 pilot with the 1st Fighter Wing. “Like, ‘Hey, we’re all here to demonstrate what we’re capable of and compete. We are going to work together. We’re all effectively on the same team in the big picture. But while we are here for the week in Savannah, we are here to compete.’ And that was evident from literally the first minute.”
The William Tell competition dates to at least 1954, with a history that may go back to 1949, in the earliest days of the Air Force. Named for the Swiss folk hero and legendary archer of the same name, the contest became a biennial competition that pitted the best fighter pilots and commands against one another until 1996. This year’s competition was only the second since then, the lone exception coming in 2004, which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the original.
Lt. Col. Stephen Thomas, commander, Air Dominance Center
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.
Yet after nearly two decades, many if not most Airmen had never even heard William Tell and the Air Force uttered in the same breath. Others knew of it only through trophies still on display at their bases.
But with China emerging as a peer competitor and Russia at war in Europe, the Air Force is recommitting to the need for high-end competitions to help prepare its best for the kind of high-end aerial combat that could lie ahead. So leaders at Air Combat Command decided to bring back William Tell to “invigorate that motivation through competition,” said competition director Maj. Garrett “Dodge” Getschow.
After months of planning, much of it led by young officers and NCOs, the Air Force officially announced the return of the meet in July, promising an epic show: “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 Air Dominance Center, in a July press release.
What they got was unlike anything any of the participants had experienced before. “It had an electric vibe to it,” said Lt. Col. Matthew “Beast” Tanis, who helped select the team that represented the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing. “It was different than a normal TDY, and I’ve been on several TDYs over my 10 years flying the F-15. And this was different than all of them. It was very much a lot of pride in the unit.”
Hundreds of Airmen took part, and not just pilots and weapons systems officers, but also aircrew, maintainers, weapons loaders, intelligence analysts, and command and control (C2) experts, among others. Together, they planned missions and managed flights for F-15s, F-22s, and F-35s representing eight wings from ACC, Pacific Air Forces, and the Air National Guard.
Adding to the exclusive nature of the event, the Air Force brought in keynote speakers and panelists each night to regale Airmen with USAF history and the stories of past competitions; the F-22 Raptor Demonstration Team showed off its flying prowess; and local residents and distinguished visitors were treated to what amounted to “a mini air show every day,” said Capt. Roberto “Super” Mercado, an F-35 pilot who competed, representing the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing.
At its heart, though, William Tell was about sparking a fire among the Air Force’s most elite warriors, pushing them to go head-to-head against some of the very best of their peers.
“When you think about NFL football, like that level of competition, people want to win,” Getschow said. “Airmen have this intrinsic drive to win. So now when you can actually codify that and put it on paper and create an awesome environment outside of that competition, I think that is where it struck everybody, not just from the competitors themselves, but the maintainers that are getting the jets ready, or the logistics guys that are bringing hundreds of trucks to make this happen, knowing, ‘If any of us fail, this might mean our wing fails.’”
Compared to the stress of combat, some participants like Capt. Andrew “Pañic” Munoz, an F-15E pilot from the 4th Fighter Wing, were skeptical at first that William Tell could spark such intensity.
“Fast-forward to being at the step desk before going to fly and I had this pit in my stomach,” Munoz said. I don’t want to let my team down, I don’t want to let the wing down, and I don’t want to let myself down. … It made me a believer.”
Erecting a large screen in the hangar to display team scores every night amped up the competitive juices, said Brig. Gen. D. Micah “Zeus” Fesler, William Tell Air Expeditionary Wing commander.
“The real difference [from other exercises] that you see is that there’s a scoreboard, and there is a scoreboard that everybody saw every night,” Fesler said. “They knew how they performed, and they could see how they were doing relative to one another’s peers.”
- Dogfighting: One-on-one basic fighter maneuvers.
- Air combat maneuvers: “So you basically have your lane in the airspace. You have one Red Air [jet] on one side to the east and then the other one to the west, and you sit there in the middle. You pick a direction and you start flying that way, you’ve got to intercept the fighter that’s now coming to kill you guys, and then you work as a team of two Blue Air [jets] to kill the Red Air guys as quickly as possible,” said Mercado.
- A gunnery contest: Participants fired their aircraft guns at a target banner towed by a Learjet, and judges could then examine the banners to determine accuracy. Fesler said teams got to take their banners home with them.
- Fighter integration: “Four F-22s plus four F-35s plus four F-15s against 20 adversaries,” said Fesler. “And those 20 adversaries would regenerate one time, so a total of 40 adversaries. And they had to defend a piece of airspace for a 40-minute period of time. And so over that entire period, you had that team of four-plus-four, plus four that was working together with their air battle managers, as well as their intelligence team, to put together the best game plan and then go out and execute that game plan. And that was probably the pinnacle event of all of them.”
Meet planners wanted a pure test of each wing’s skills, so they discouraged teams from practicing specifically for the competition and required each squad to have pilots with varying degrees of experience. They also ensured aircrews didn’t have to worry about standard administrative tasks like coordinating refueling or setting frequencies. They were simply expected to show up each day, form a plan, and fly.
Organizers threw in their share of “curveballs,” however: Mercado said there were limited weapons loadouts in the air and academic tests on the ground. There were also moments of improvisation, like when one F-15 took off 15 minutes late after swapping jets due to an aircraft malfunction, leading to a dramatic arrival in the nick of time to save Munoz and his weapons system officer, Capt. George “King” Welton, who had already run out of missiles.
4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.
366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho
104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass.
1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
154th Fighter Wing, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii
388th Fighter Wing and 419th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah
158th Fighter Wing, Burlington Air National Guard Base, Vt.
Command and Control
552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
18th Wing, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan
In the spirit of competition, there was plenty of friendly trash talk, but pilots stayed tight-lipped about the challenges they faced in the air to ensure no one gained an advantage from someone who had already experienced one or another stage of the competition.
But there was camaraderie too—and a shared appreciation for the importance of what everyone was working toward.
2023 William Tell Award Winners
Major Richard I. Bong Fighter Interceptor Trophy: 3rd Wing (F-22s), 366th Fighter Wing (F-15Es), 388th and 419th Fighter Wings (F-35s)
Lieutenant Colonel James H. Harvey III Top F-15 Wing Award: 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass.
Captain Eddie Rickenbacker Top F-22 Wing Award: 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Brigadier General Robin Olds Top F-35 Wing Award: 158th Fighter Wing, Burlington Air National Guard Base, Vt.
Colonel Jesse C. Williams Top Intel Tradecraft Wing Award: 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Big I Task Force Top C2 Wing: 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
Chief Master Sergeant Argol “Pete” Lisse Maintenance Team Award: 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Overall Weapons Load Competition: 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass.
Top F-15 Crew Chief: 366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho
Top F-22 Crew Chief: 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Top F-35 Crew Chief: 158th Fighter Wing, Burlington Air National Guard Base, Vt.
F-15 Superior Performer: 104th Fighter Wing, Barnes Air National Guard Base, Mass.
F-22 Superior Performer: 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
F-35 Superior Performer: 158th Fighter Wing, Burlington Air National Guard Base, Vt.
* Awardees names were withheld for operational security.
“It culminated Friday evening, right at the end of the competition, where all the pilots got together from every single [team],” said the F-22 pilot from the 1st Fighter Wing. “We spent some time talking about the things we had seen, the things we did, the things we’ve learned, and really, just kind of understanding the importance of that air superiority mission … and the importance of continuing this culture of air superiority as we move forward.”
Maintainers and Loaders
While the pilots competed in the sky, maintainers and weapons loaders competed on the ground.
Keeping the different fleets flying required coordination across units, along with plenty of work and some late nights, participants said.
“We didn’t lose a single sortie to maintenance,” said Master Sgt. Brandon Bradley, the noncommissioned officer in charge for the 158th Fighter Wing’s maintenance group. “So hats off to our maintenance team for being able to keep up with that ops tempo, the demand for the competition. We knew going down there with our minimal footprint that we were going to be there to work hard, and the team absolutely knocked it out of the park. Their professionalism and their determination to not only go down there and execute but to put on there with the attitude of wanting to win, demonstrate our professionalism was outstanding.”
Maintainers were judged based on “everything following the letter of the law, down to the tech data,” said a maintainer with the 1st Fighter Wing, which won the team maintenance award. “Following the black and white, making sure the process is tight; all the reporting that goes into it, all of the scheduling; the speed and accuracy, because the turns were tight sometimes with flying, trying to get aircraft regenerated to fly, but the guys and gals knew that and they just went after it.”
Individual crew chiefs were also recognized for each aircraft type.
Meanwhile, weapons load crews also competed based on aircraft type, with the winner from each advancing to a final showdown with packed bleachers and blaring music.
“We will do a demo load for everybody at an air show, but this was something different,” said Tech. Sgt. Preston Hallett, a loader with the 104th Fighter Wing. “You could feel the energy from your whole unit just cheering you on, and it just gives you that much more drive and gumption and you forgot about how tired you were.”
Pilots, planners, and other Airmen cheered them on from the stands.
“To watch that front and center, in a competitive vibe, I was pumped,” Tanis said. “I was so pumped. I lost my voice, I was screaming so much.”
Amid all the excitement, the teams of three Airmen each had to focus on maintaining a fine balance of speed and accuracy, following all the technical and safety procedures in the multi-step process of loading sophisticated weapons. Working as fast as possible, they also had to follow procedures perfectly, or evaluators could deduct points for technical or safety deviations.
Command and Control and Intel
Intel officers and command and control analysts also went head-to-head to see who could best support and coordinate the fighters’ efforts—key parts of the air dominance mission.
“We’ve got what we like to call the God’s-eye view,” said Capt. Kyle Lassiter of the 552nd Air Control Wing. “In a fighter jet, you may have one or two people, they’re trying to put together everything in the battlespace. Meanwhile, we have more people that are sitting at one G, that have brainpower, that can put in critical thought, provide recommendations to our fighters, or orders from higher-level leadership, to take [work] off their plates. So having that, that big-picture view allows them to better execute their own mission design series.”
For C2, teams consisted of a briefer, a weapons director coordinating action in the sky, and a mission systems operator responsible for ensuring all the C2 systems are functioning properly. Teams were judged on “how well the crews can execute under a stressful environment,” Lassiter said, and they faced questions from graders on their systems and protocols.
Like their counterparts, the C2 teams felt the pressure of the environment.
“Going into it, I was a little nervous, but it was an excited nervous,” said Staff Sgt. Justin Helman. “Being able to compete in such a big competition with a whole bunch of different players from around the world, just meeting everybody, and then having the level of competition on the side of it, brings that drive to win, to be one of the best.”
Competition Feeds Deterrence
Air wings and squadrons have always held their own competitions, but after seeing that at a new level, with units from across the globe, leaders said they were more convinced than ever that expanding competition is crucial to preparing for peer competition in the future.
“There is an incredible value in healthy competition,” Fesler said. “And it is truly what makes us great as an Air Force. The spirit that we have in competition against one another, when we have the opportunities to do so, is that same spirit that will bring us together as a team when it comes time for us to fight our adversaries.”
ACC commander Gen. Mark D. Kelly and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Russell L. Mack, attended the event, fueling the competitive spirit—“from the top down,” said Getschow—while also underscoring the broader changes leaders are trying to make across the force.
“Take the camaraderie, lessons learned, and the spirit of competition from this week back home,” Mack told the competitors. “Challenge yourselves to improve your units, improve your units to increase mission readiness, and increase mission readiness to develop a culture of competitive endurance.”
That’s the culture the Air Force that led leaders to create William Tell in the first place.
“What we have realized is air dominance and superiority is not a birthright,” Getschow said in a statement. “It is something we must earn and continue to maintain. So, bringing back William Tell now is significant as the global landscape and our near-peer adversaries continue to change.”
Building a culture takes time, though—and William Tell leaders say they don’t intend to let the competition fade away like it did after 2004.
“We’re already talking about running William Tell again in 2025,” said Fesler, with discussions within Air Combat Command and Headquarters Air Force starting even before the 2023 competition was over.
“We want to make it a regular event, and I think you will also see, there used to be a competition called Gunsmoke that was an air-to-ground competition,” Fesler added. “So I think you may see those continue out over time.”
Like William Tell, Gunsmoke started in the Air Force’s early days and stopped in the 1990s—though a version lives on with the A-10 community’s Hawgsmoke.
For now, William Tell participants have returned to their units and are telling their fellow Airmen about what they saw, learned, and felt in Savannah. And many told Air & Space Forces Magazine they would be happy to see more competition in the future.
“I think both from the selfish personal side, I think it’d be an awesome experience to be able to go back there and fly and compete again,” the 1st Fighter Wing pilot said. “But even beyond that, I think the takeaways and the lessons and the experiences of William Tell, that is what this Air Force definitely needs.”
“Working together with different communities and competing is just awesome,” Mercado said. “It gets you better as a fighter pilot, it gets you better as an F-35 community, as well as force integration between the F-22, F-35, and F-15 communities. Ultimately, competition breeds success and growth.
One anonymous participant was particularly strident in their belief that William Tell needs to live on, said Getschow.
“One of the feedback comments from one of the surveys was, ‘If William Tell ’25 doesn’t come back, there’s going to be a mutiny,’” he noted.