The Raptor Arrives
Debriefing the pilots who got the first crack at the F-22.
- By Carl Hoffman
- Air & Space magazine, November 2005
Eric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin
(Page 2 of 4)
As for the Tyndall pilots, squadron commander Michael “Bam Bam” Stapleton, 38, and operations officer David “Kooler” Krum, 37, look like frat boys, but they’re both lieutenant colonels, and each has over 2,500 hours in F-15s. The others in the 43rd, like Cabral, are also young but are senior captains or majors, Formal Training Unit flight instructors with at least 1,000 hours in their primary weapons. “The cost of [the F/A-22] program is so high that every mistake will be on the front pages of the paper,” says Stapleton. “We don’t want to steal the top guns from every squadron, but we need to put the most talented folks we can on the plane as early as we can.”
Cabral, a compact man with eager brown eyes, takes me out on the flightline. Rows of F-15s and F-16s sit uncovered against the Florida rain and sun, but the Raptors get parked in new shelters that resemble suburban carports.
Compared with their neighbors, which bristle with weapons, the Rap-tors look neutered; their weapons bays are internal, so the airplanes generate a much smaller radar signature. The Raptors’ stealthy shape sends most of a radar return away from the signal’s source. The cleaner airframe also produces relatively little drag.
The Tyndall pilots’ training syllabus lasts 60 days. Cabral tells me that the first 21 days were all academic. He had to sit through 57 hours of classes (including five tests), plus 16 hours in the simulator. There are no two-seat F/A-22s, so when Cabral took off for the first time, it really was his first Raptor flight. The day before, he’d sat in the aircraft for the first time, then started it up. “It’s got that new car smell,” he recalls. “It’s louder than an [F-15] Eagle, it rumbles more, and the nose slopes down so it feels almost like you’re falling out of the plane.”
He had three basic “transition” rides—transitioning from the simulator—and a check ride, then his training continued through a series of carefully scripted steps that would simulate increasingly complex threat scenarios.
All combat jet training begins with BFM: one jet against another within visual range. Pretty standard stuff, except that in the case of the Raptor, power, big control surfaces, and vectored thrust enable 60-degree angles of attack and the ability to turn on a dime. The Raptor is the first U.S. fighter able to perform cobra maneuvers—in which an aircraft rears up into high angles of attack—and J-turns, in which the craft then almost swivels in the air while pointing its weapon. “An F-15’s turning radius is 3,000 to 5,000 feet, but this plane can almost rotate in space,” Cabral says. “An F-15 requires a lot more finesse and a lot more constant practice of stick-muscle memory to get it to pull 9 Gs. The Raptor is simple: You pull on the stick and you get 9 Gs almost instantly. Little inputs on stick and the throttle give you large outputs. Its responsiveness and maneuverability over anything else airborne is instantly apparent.”
BFM for the Raptor consists of just four flights (the F-15, by comparison, requires 12). Air Force planners expect that the Raptor will spend little time dogfighting; “supercruise and stealth are so much more important,” Cabral says. In a Raptor, a visual encounter should take place only “because you choose it,” he says, “and you arrive in the merge with complete surprise.”
After BFM, pilots learn advanced combat maneuvers, with multiple airplanes working as a team. Even more differences emerge between the Raptor and its siblings.