That Time the U.S. Air Force 'Elephant Walked' 70 F-15 Fighter Jets

F-15 Elephant Walk in 2022
June 12, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DefenseElephant WalkMilitaryU.S. Air ForceAir ForceF-16F-15

That Time the U.S. Air Force 'Elephant Walked' 70 F-15 Fighter Jets

The U.S. Air Force's "elephant walk" exercises, where multiple aircraft taxi in close formation before takeoff, demonstrate the unit's capability and teamwork.


Summary: The U.S. Air Force's "elephant walk" exercises, where multiple aircraft taxi in close formation before takeoff, demonstrate the unit's capability and teamwork.



-This year, eight U-2 "Dragon Lady" spy planes lined up at Beale AFB. Such displays are reminiscent of WWII bomber formations and serve to showcase readiness.

-Notable elephant walks include 4,000 Airmen and 80 aircraft at Sheppard AFB, 70 F-15s at Seymour Johnson AFB, and 52 F-35s at Hill AFB.

-One of the most impressive was eight B-2 Spirits at Whiteman AFB, showcasing nearly half of the total Spirit fleet, valued at $16 billion.

U.S. Air Force Showcases Power with U-2 'Elephant Walk'

Earlier this year, eight of the legendary U-2 "Dragon Lady" spy planes were lined up in an "Elephant Walk" at Beale Air Force Base (AFB), California as part of the United States Air Force's efforts to showcase the joint airpower of the multiple wings stationed at the facility. It may not have been the largest such "elephant walks," the term for taxiing numerous aircraft before takeoff – yet it was likely a sight to behold.

In addition to the close formation on the ground, it can involve a minimum interval takeoff.

The first elephant walks occurred during the Second World War when large fleets of allied bombers massed for attacks – and observers on the ground noted that as the aircraft lined up, it resembled the nose-to-tail formations of elephants walking to a watering hole.

Today, the U.S. Air Force employs elephant walks to show the capability of a unit as well as the teamwork that is required to conduct such an operation. It also can help pilots prepare for the launching of fully armed aircraft in a mass event if needed.

So what was the largest "Elephant Walk" ever conducted? The answer could be a bit tricky – as it could involve not only the number of aircraft but the size and capabilities as well.

Four Thousand Student Elephant Walk Biggest Ever? 

It was last spring that 4,000 student Airmen from the 82nd Training Wing shared the runway with 80 training aircraft from the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard Air Force Base (AFB), Texas, in possibly the largest and most unique "elephant walk" in Air Force history. It was conducted to shine a light on the importance of training and partnerships.

"The key to airpower is exceptional Airmen, and the key to exceptional Airmen is exceptional training," said Brig. Gen. Lyle K. Drew, 82nd TW commander. "That's what we do here at Sheppard [AFB], and this elephant walk was our message to the world that the U.S. and its international partners remain committed to delivering the best-trained Airmen in the world."

Sheppard AFB is home to three of the eight technical training groups in the Air Force as well as Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training, while it is also home to the service's largest Noncommissioned Officer Academy.

"No other base could bring this many training aircraft and student Airmen to bear like this," said Col. Brad Orgeron, 80th FTW commander. "The fundamental technical and pilot training missions that happen here every day affect literally every base and every combat sortie in the Air Force – not to mention the impact on our global partners."

Elephant Walk: How About 70 F-15s?

Another contender for the largest elephant walk was one conducted at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., on April 16, 2012, involving nearly seventy F-15 Strike Eagles from the United States Air Force's 4th Fighter Wing – with aircrews assigned to the 4th Fighter Wing's 333rd, 334th, 335th, and 336th Fighter Squadrons.


The fourth-generation aircraft had lined up on the runway during a Turkey Shoot training mission, in which the more than five dozen aircraft successfully destroyed in excess of 1,000 targets on bombing ranges across the state to commemorate the 4th's victory over the Luftwaffe on April 16, 1945.

The Billion Dollar Elephant Walk

Another contender for the most impressive elephant walk occurred in January 2020, when the United States Air Force's Active Duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted the Combat Power Exercise at Hill AFB, Utah, with 52 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II 35As – the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the U.S. military's Joint Strike Fighter.

The elephant walk of the F-35 Lightning IIs was employed to demonstrate the "ability to employ a large force of F-35As" as well as to test the air wing's readiness for personnel accountability, aircraft generation, ground operations, flight operations, and combat capability, according to a Hill statement from the time.

F-35 Elephant Walk

Though the U.S. Air Force's press photos may have looked to many like little more than a number of aircraft lined up, the exercise had been planned for months. As reported, "The amount of hardware on the runway in terms of billions of dollars is staggering."

It was also likely quite an expensive show of force. If each of the 52 F-35 fighters in the elephant walk flew for just a single hour, it was still a $2 million-plus exercise. Yet, it could be described as truly priceless.

The ability to launch 52 of the fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters was as much to send a message to detractors of the program within the United States as it was to reaffirm the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia.

Show Some Serious Spirit

While it may not have been the largest elephant walk in terms of the number of aircraft, last November eight Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirits lined up on the runway at Whiteman AFB, Missouri, at the culmination of the recent Spirit Vigilance 22 training exercise.

Aircraft from the 509th and 131st Bomb Wings took part in an “elephant walk” before a series of training and readiness drills. The Spirits lined up in close formation on the runway before taking off at short intervals. The routine showcased the availability of the aircraft and served as a demonstration of power.

B-2 Bomber

Given that just twenty B-2s are in service, the display included about 40% of the total Spirit fleet. With eight bombers on the runway at roughly $2 Billion a piece, it drew approximately $16 Billion in stealth bombers to a single location.

That is might no other nation on earth could showcase.

B-2 Bomber

Author Experience and Expertise: Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu. Email the author: [email protected]

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