An F-22 Raptor assigned to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, flies in formation over the … [+]
U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James Richardson
A hurricane that struck Florida in late 2018 damaged and displaced so many of the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighters that the flying branch resorted to desperate measures to ensure it could fly enough F-22 sorties.
It underscores how few Raptors the Air Force possesses, and how fragile the fleet could be if it ever sustains major losses in wartime.
Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc on Florida’s Panhandle region in late October 2018. Wind and rain lashed Tyndall Air Force Base, uprooting trees, flattening buildings and ripping the roofs off of hangars.
Tyndall at the time was the F-22 training base. Prior to the storm, two Tyndall squadrons—the 43rd Fighter Squadron, a dedicated training unit, and the combat-coded 95th Fighter Squadron—together operated 55 of the Air Force’s 186 F-22s.
Airmen at Tyndall were able to fly out just 38 of the 55 Raptors prior to the storm. The remaining 17 jets—nearly a tenth of all F-22s—were down for maintenance. Those jets rode out the wind and rain in hangars. Some suffered damage.
Airmen promptly repaired many of the jets. Photos depicted small numbers of F-22 departing the Florida base on Oct. 21 and 24. The last three F-22s left Tyndall on Nov. 16.
With Tyndall needing years of work costing billions of dollars, the Air Force decided to relocate all of the base’s F-22s to other facilities.
The combat-coded 95th Fighter Squadron disbanded and dispersed its 24 late-model F-22s to the three other bases with front-line Raptors. “We have recommended that the best path forward to increase readiness and use money wisely is to consolidate the operational F-22s,” said Heather Wilson, then the Air Force secretary.
Eight U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, sit on the … [+]
U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe
Langley in Virginia, Elmendorf in Alaska and Hickam in Hawaii together house five F-22 squadrons. At the time of the storm, Langley’s two squadrons each had 23 F-22s. Elmendorf’s two squadrons together possessed 47 Raptors. Hickam’s sole squadron, an Air National Guard unit, operated 20 F-22s. The jets from the disbanded 95th Fighter Squadron helped the other units boost their flyable strength to at least 24 planes apiece.
The 43rd Fighter Squadron, the training unit, set up shop with 28 early-model F-22s at Eglin Air Force Base in western Florida. That’s three fewer F-22s than the squadron possessed prior to the storm, implying that at least three of the unit’s Raptors suffered serious storm damage.
The damage and churn in late 2018 and early 2019 effectively removed dozens of F-22s from the inventory—this at a time when the Air Force was trying to keep a small force of Raptors deployed to the United Arab Emirates for missions over Iraq, Syria and the Persian Gulf.
The Air Force swiftly recalled the F-22s from the Emirates, replacing them with older F-15Cs and, later, smaller F-35 stealth fighters. Meanwhile, the flying branch undertook a crash program to allow its undamaged Raptors to fly more frequently.
The rapid crew-swap initiative was simple in concept. “In a rapid crew-swap, an aircraft is launched, completes its mission and upon returning to base the pilot is quickly changed,” the Air Force explained in a May release. “As the pilots are changing out maintenance personnel refuel and complete expedited checks before immediately launching the aircraft for another mission.”
“Incorporating rapid crew-swaps can reduce the time it takes to generate a new sortie by up to two hours,” the Air Force stated. Same number of jets. More missions.
Maj. Benjamin Gilliland and Lt. Col. Tyler Robarge, both of the 411th Flight Test Squadron and F-22 … [+]
U.S. Air Force/Lockheed Martin
While the Air Force originally developed rapid crew-swap procedures to help boost the F-22’s training fleet, the same technique also can help improve the flying rate of combat units.
In April, the Raptor test fleet began developing standardized methods of swapping pilots. “Tyndall really paved the way for the rest of the community in showing that this was a viable option to increase sortie production,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Robarge, the F-22 test director with the 411th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Raptor availability improved in the year following Hurricane Michael. By May this year, 123 of the latest Block 30/35/40 F-22s equipped the five front-line squadrons. Test units at Edwards and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada flew 16 of the oldest Raptors.
The training unit then at Eglin possessed 29 Block 10/20 F-22s before losing one in a non-fatal crash on May 15.
Today 168 F-22s equip the combat, test and training squadrons. The balance, 17 airframes, is in the back-up inventory. In other words, the Air Force has 17 Raptors that it considers “extra.” Thirteen are combat-coded models. Two are training jets. Two are test planes.
That’s 17 F-22s the Air Force can afford to lose. After that, the Raptor fleet must take desperate measures to keep training, testing and fighting. Desperate measures such as swapping out pilots.