The F15-E Strike Eagle features a two-man cockpit. The pilot in the front seat and the WSO (Weapons System Officer) in the back seat.

If the jet is cruising straight and level is mechanically sound but the pilot becomes completely incapacitated (from a heart attack for example) can the WSO take over and land the aircraft? I could imagine that the correct procedure may be to just eject both the pilot and themselves. Do WSO's learn to fly the F15?

The following image is the backseat cockpit area of a F-15 E where the WSO sits. Note the control stick and the throttle control I've highlighted with red arrows. Surely this means the WSO has the ability to take over control?

enter image description here source(http://i61.tinypic.com/dbqp2q.jpg)

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    $\begingroup$ Side question: If your left arrow points to the throttle, what's the same control on the right side? $\endgroup$
    – sweber
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 9:39
  • $\begingroup$ @user1352057 Please provide proper attribution for your image. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ @sweber good spot! Please see Paveway3's answer to what these 'sticks' are. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ The WSO actually does have a throttle, but it is not visible in this picture. It is behind and to the left of the left hand side stick controller marked with the arrow. It is much simpler than the front seat throttle, which has a lot of "HOTAS" switches on it that he WSO doesn't need. $\endgroup$
    – Paveway3
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 9:22

5 Answers 5


Short answer, yes. However, it is important to note that the WSO is not a pilot. The WSO is trained to operate the weapons systems, not fly the aircraft, but does have basic flight controls including throttle, stick, rudder pedals, compass, HSI, etc. He does not have good forward visibility and would likely have to be talked in on final approach by the tower, as his view is obstructed by the pilot's seat.

Although the F-15E was developed from the D-model used for pilot training, the airframe was significantly redesigned for it's new purpose, and the back seat of an E-model bears only a passing resemblance to the back seat of a D-model. The WSO has a very specific and complex set of tasks which does not include flying the airplane, and his controls are designed around that purpose. He has more screens than the pilot to look at, and two side-stick controllers (not part of the flight control system) that are used for controlling / selecting / guiding / programming / etc. a large variety of weapons. He also has primary control over the FLIR and laser pods used for target designation and tracking.

On a final note, it is not uncommon (although less common in these days of sequestration) for non-aircrew personnel to be given 'incentive rides' in the back seat of aircraft like the F-15D/E or F-16D, and during these rides control of the aircraft is invariably passed to the passenger. I was privileged enough during my Air Force career to get a ride in the back seat of an F-15E (tail number 88-1671 at Seymour Johnson AFB, NC) and can say from personal experience that it is possible to fly an F-15E from the back seat. It was the most exhilarating 5 minutes of my life. Fortunately for both of us, the pilot didn't experience any problems during the flight...

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation.SE, it's good to hear about first hand experience! $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Paveway3 thanks for your excellent answer. Do WSO's receive basic flight training on the F-15E? I.e at the least how to fly a circuit and land? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ I know that they do extensive emergency procedures training, but I don't know to what extent they actually get into flying and landing the aircraft. It would depend a lot on the situation, location, and condition of the pilot and aircraft, and there is probably not a definitive yes or no answer as to whether or not the WSO would attempt to land or simply eject both of them. Another comment mentioned the ability of the WSO to extend but not raise the landing gear. His control is labeled 'emergency gear extend', which is indicative of his expected role in flying the aircraft...emergency only. $\endgroup$
    – Paveway3
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 9:15

Yes. They can fly the aircraft if required. The F-15E is developed from F-15D , which is used for aircrew training, with the instructing pilot in the rear seat.

There is atleast one documented case where the WSO controlled the aircraft, albeit briefly. On March 2012, a F-15E crashed, killing the pilot. During the accident, as a result of pilot actions, the WSO decided that the pilot has suffered spatial disorientation and attempted to recover, before initiating the ejection sequence. From USAF Accident Investigation Report:

At that point, the MWSO believed that the MP did not know which way was up ... . The MWSO grabbed the controls and rolled the MA left towards a near wings-level position... The MWSO then pulled 11 g while rolling left to wings-level... As the MWSO rolled the MA to nearly level flight, he initiated ejection for the MC...

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    $\begingroup$ Honest question - why would there be a control stick and throttle levers in the rear seat if they didn't actually allow for control of the aircraft when necessary? $\endgroup$
    – Jules
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JulesMazur In all likelyhood, yes. Some of the commands and controls for operating the weapons and targeting systems are going to be part of the HOTAS (Hands On Throttle And Stick) system, and it's going to be cheaper to just duplicate those same controls from the pilot seat for the WSO seat. But just because they are wired up to operate the radar, doesn't mean they will be linked to the flight control systems. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @JulesMazur Because the cost of redesigning them is higher than that of buying and installing them. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 16:48

The WSO can do everything from the back seat, but there is one thing he cannot do. He can lower the landing gear, but he cannot raise it.

As far as ejecting, the WSO has the option of ejecting himself or both.

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    $\begingroup$ Citation needed! This would be an extremely surprising omission. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 4:06
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    $\begingroup$ i used to work on F-15E's. $\endgroup$
    – james
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ Still needs a citation. It's astonishing that they would give the WSO -- or especially an instructor -- everything except the final piece they need to get home alive. Putting that control stick in the rear seat cost hundreds of times more than it would cost to put in a switch or two so why would they stop short? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ @CareyGregory why do they need to raise the gear to get home alive? $\endgroup$
    – jbg
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ @CareyGregory -- It's because the "Emergency Gear Release" is a completely different control switch (manual, actuates a pressure dump solenoid IIRC that drops the gear and flaps, similar in design to the space shuttle orbiter's system) than the actual gear actuation control box. There is a size, weight, cost penalty to adding another complete control unit: aviation.stackexchange.com/a/43686/14921 $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 2:09

A pilot in my B Course G-loc’d and the Instructor WSO recovered the aircraft and started the RTB process. Student pilot came to later and took over to land. The HUD repeater makes forward visibility problem somewhat of a no -factor.

2000 Hr strike eagle WSO


The WSO has an emergency landing gear handle that can be pulled in case of a loss of hydraulic pressure. It gives just enough pressure to lower the gear and flaps once. That's enough for the WSO to land the plane in an emergency and leaves space for systems that are more relevant to their job.


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