The First F-15 Was a Reporter

By Scott Spangler on March 21st, 2022

Researching the 75th anniversary of Project Thunderstorm, conducted at the U.S. Air Force’s All-Weather Flying Center in Wilmington, Ohio, from May to September, 1947, I admired the courage of the volunteer pilots, weather observers, and airborne radar operators that flew instrumented Northrop P-61 Black Widows into convective thunderstorm environments on purpose. But what triggered the curiosity that sent me down the research rabbit hole was the mention of an airplane I’d never heard of, the F-15 Reporter. (That’s it, last in the line of P-61s.)

Like the jet-propelled F-15 Eagle, the two-person crew of the piston-powered Reporter sat in tandem beneath a long bubble canopy, and both bear the F designator, which stood for photographic until the Department of Defense overhauled its designation system for U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force in 1947, when pursuit planes like the P-80 Shooting Star became fighters with an F, and fotographic flyers like the F-15 became reconnaissance aircraft, as in the RF-61. The second designator identifies the base airframe, in this case the P/F-61.

The F-15 is essentially an F-5 Lightning on steroids. Both had twin booms that supported the powerplants, water-cooled Allisons in the F-5 and air-cooled Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radials in the F-15. One look at their planforms, it was clear that the F-5 is a P-38 and the F-15 is a P-61 with a new canopy and a center nacelle full of cameras. Although Northrop only built 36 of them, the Reporters, the Air Force’s last piston-powered photo reconnaissance aircraft provided vital views of the Korean peninsula when north invaded south in 1950.

All but nine of the F-15s flew with just one squadron, the 8th Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron, which was attached to the 35th Fighter Group in Japan. Formed in 1942, the 8th flew F-4/F-5s in the South Pacific and island hopped its way toward Japan with General Douglas MacArthur, and became part of the U.S. Army of Occupation in August 1945. After standing down in April 1946, the Air Force reactivated the squadron with F-15 Reporters, the it started flying photographic mapping missions over Japan, Korea, Philippines, and other Pacific landmasses in July 1947.

In Japan, the Post-Hostilities Mapping Program extensively photographed beaches, villages, road networks, and cultural centers. The F-15s were not the only photographic F-birds so employed. Working with them was the F-13, which turns out was a variant of the B-19 Superfortress. The F-15s (or RF-61s, as they were then designated) started flying tactical recon and mapping sorties over North and South Korea on June 29, 1950 and were the only recon resource until U.S. Marine Corps Grumman F7F-3P photo Tigercats joined the war later that year. The F-15s, as the 8th continued to call their photo mounts, flew their final sortie on February 24, 1951.

The surviving F-15s went to government agencies, like NACA, which used one as the mothership that dropped early swept-wing designs and recoverable aerodynamic test bodies from high above Edwards Air Force Base, and others were surplus sales to civilians. The last flying example of the entire P-61 series was the first production F-15A Reporter out of the Northrup factory. Sold as surplus in 1955, it did aerial survey work in California and then, in 1956, Mexico. It returned to the United States in 1964, where Cal-Nat turned it into a firefighting tanker by adding a 1,600-gallon tank. TBM Inc., another aerial firefighting operator bought the F-15 in 1968, and it made its last flight fighting a fire that September, aborting a takeoff from a too short strip and ending up in a vegetable field. Another TBM aircraft doused the burning Reporter with its load of fire fighting slurry.

Anyway one looks at it, the F-15 didn’t have an easy life. With cameras replacing its guns, in Korea all it could do was run from pursuing North Korean MiGs. Its firefighting life didn’t turn out so well either. And then there was Project Thunderstorm. Besides its photographic duties, it carried additional instruments into growing towers of cumulonimbus. And for a change of pace, another F-15 flew to Naval Air Station Minneapolis where it was fitted with instruments, affixed with lightning rods, situated in a Tesla torture cage, and struck with manmade lightening of 8 million volts and 250,000 amps. A copper bar connected to the canopy dissipated 4 million volts and 50,000 amps, a reality I’m sure the person sitting in the pilot’s position was happy about.

Taking one final turn on this curiosity crusade, what about the F-birds between the F-4/5 Lightning and F-15 Reporter. The F-3 was an A-20. The F-6 was a P-51 Mustang. The F-7 was a B-24 Liberator. The F-8 was a de Havilland Mosquito. The F-9 was a B-17. The F-10 was a B-25. The F-11 was Howard Hughes’s ill-fated photo recon X-bird. The F-12 was a new design, the four-engine Rainbow, built by Republic. The F-13 was the aforementioned B-29. And the F-14 was the first jet, a Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star. There’s a book in there somewhere.

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3 Responses to “The First F-15 Was a Reporter”

  1. John Vine Says:


    I presume that when you do research of this kind, the spelling of names has some pertinent, if perhaps small, significance.

    Extract from your story about the F-15 Reporter:

    “water-cooled Alissons in the F-5”

    In fact, it was the ALLISON company that made those engines.

    Just my $0.02 …



  2. Scott Spangler Says:

    Spelling names is, indeed, pertinent. So is the ability to type them correctly. And I’ll fix that error now. Thanks!

  3. The First F-15 Was a Reporter - Says:

    Joseph Grimmer

    The 75th anniversary of Project Thunderstorm introduces a new family of F-birds, starting with the F-15 Reporter.

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