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 4 of 4)
The graduating ride is called a Global Strike Profile: “It’s putting everything we learn together in a high-threat missile environment,” explains Cabral. That could be Raptors escorting B-2s or F-117s, Raptors escorting Raptors, even Raptors escorting F-15s.
In sum, what the pilots learn is that the Raptor is brainy, agile, fast, and almost invisible to radar. “Based on those four tenets,” says Garland, “we say it’s best for high-threat surface-to-air environments where other weapons have to stop.” One aircraft that had to stop, he says, is the F-15C during the 1991 Gulf War. “We could attack any air threat with an F-15C, no problem, as long as it engaged us. But if that air threat decided to hide in a SAM zone and not come out and fight, we had to stop. We couldn’t chase that airplane into a high-threat environment.”
Potentially high-threat environments include China, Russia, Iran—places defended by the latest SAM batteries, which transmit information among themselves by deeply buried fiber-optic cable. If the United States decides to go in, the Raptor will lead the charge. “We don’t have anything on the streets besides the Raptor that can gain access to those threats,” says Tyndall’s Stapleton. “We can use B-2s or F-117s, but they’re subsonic and can only go in slow. If a MiG-21 with an Atoll missile gets a tally on one, he can actually get them, so the B-2s and -117s are limited to night strikes. Only the Raptor gives us the speed and stealth to sneak up and open the line of scrimmage 24/7.”
Today at Tyndall, the only threat is the pounding rain and low ceiling. The Raptors are grounded, so Cabral, Krumm, Lopez, Captain Jeremy “Huck” Durtsch, and Christopher “Moto” Niemi gather in the squadron’s spotless new bar and pour a round of Balvenie single-malt to celebrate Lopez’s first Raptor flight, which he made the day before. “After the sim, nothing surprised me,” Lopez says, taking a sip. “I didn’t feel behind the jet at all.”
“It’s such a giant change it’s hard to fathom,” says Moto. “You see everything. All you do is make battle management decisions, and you don’t make bad ones. You just overrun everything with your speed and stealth. They don’t even know you’re there and you’re calling them dead.” Says Durtsch, “It’s like clubbing baby seals.”
I’m having a hard time figuring out how much of their enthusiasm is due to the Raptor’s seeming invincibility and how much is due to their unflappable, upbeat nature. Probably a bit of both.
Their love of the Raptor is not universally shared. At a time when Iraq is eating billions, the Army is clamoring for more bullets and armor, and the cost of the Joint Strike Fighter is escalating, the Raptor’s cost—$258 million apiece— seems like a lot for an airplane that has no competition and that will be virtually useless against what is probably the most common threat U.S. forces now face: suicide bombers. Not to mention an airplane whose job can still be done, with various degrees of success, by other aircraft. Still, says military analyst John Pike, “even if they don’t have a clue why they need it now…they know that something like the Raptor might come in handy in 2040.”
But in war, unexpected things happen. In 1999, an F-117 Nighthawk, the first fighter designed for stealth, was brought down in Yugoslavia by ground fire—at night. It’s one thing for a bunch of veteran pilots to practice scenarios over the Gulf of Mexico against simulated Flankers and advanced SAM sites, another for regular guys to fly it for real. And in quieter moments, that’s something even Cabral acknowledges. “The F-15 has been around for 30 years and its tactics have evolved,” he says. “But we don’t have a lot of Raptor data points yet—we’re still building them. It’s a big gray area. Honestly, we don’t know what we don’t know.”