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All hail the Raptor: The first new Air Force fighter in 30 years debuted at Nellis Air Force Base to rave reviews. (Eric Schulzinger/Lockheed Martin)

The Raptor Arrives

Debriefing the pilots who got the first crack at the F-22.

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AIR FORCE CAPTAIN MICHAEL "WACO" CABRAL can barely remember his first flight in a new F/A-22 raptor. He recalls feeling immense power at takeoff and then—a blank. “It was just like ‘Holy cow I’m in a raptor, holy cow I’m in a raptor,’ and I’m trying not to screw up.”

Cabral has better recall of his fifth, sixth, and seventh flights, during which he flew his Raptor against another in a Basic Fighter Maneuvers exercise. (The second aircraft simulated a Russian Sukhoi Su-27.) “The briefer said, ‘Look, BFM in the Raptor is boring.’ And it was true. The plane is so powerful and responsive, it can turn so tight and sustain such high Gs and angles of attack, that I can fly to the center of his turn circle and keep my nose and weapon on him all day. Whatever he tries to do, I can just point my airplane.

“When I was flying defensive BFM, he simply couldn’t enter into my turn circle. Even if he flies his weapon to the best of its capabilities and I make errors, he cannot win. It’s almost too easy.”

Cabral made his training flights out of Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. Tyndall, Edwards in California, and Nellis in Nevada are the first Air Force bases where pilots are learning how to fly the F/A-22, the Air Force’s first new fighter in three decades. Like Cabral, these pilots, veterans of the F-15C, F-15E, and F-16, rave about the Raptor’s performance. “It’s much better than we expected,” says Major Robert Garland, F/A-22 division commander at Nellis. It’s revolutionary.” The Raptor is the Air Force’s latest air superiority fighter, but it’s also intended to serve as a ground attack aircraft, one that the pilots say will “kick the doors down” and “sanitize the battle space,” paving the way for waves of F-117s and B-2s hunting surface-to-air-missile sites.

Judging by the way these new Raptor drivers talk, the training is perfect, the sims are flawless, the jet is invincible. Though they haven’t flown the Raptor in combat, you won’t hear them express any skepticism on that front. The reason is simple, says military analyst John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org and usually a skeptic himself when it comes to expensive new weapon systems: “The one lesson [the Air Force has] learned in the 20th century is that the people with the best airplanes win. And this is the best airplane.”

Like most military bases, Tyndall looks slightly worn out. The elevators in the air traffic control tower are clunky; the carpet in the canteen is threadbare. But it’s a different story in the new headquarters of the 43rd Fighter Squadron, the unit being trained to fly the Raptor. Four flat-screen televisions mounted on the wall show Fox News, satellite weather data, and flight schedules in a lobby graced with new leather sofas. The pilots’ lockers are dark burnished wood. The Raptor pilots themselves are so relentlessly positive about the aircraft that you can imagine them coming from the perfect suburb of Stepford.

The first eight Air Force pilots to learn to fly the aircraft had trained at Nellis; now, they are here teaching eight Tyndall instructors in the first 18 production jets, flown in fresh from the Lockheed Martin factory in Marietta, Georgia.

The Nellis eight are “patch wearers”—graduates of Nellis’ Air Force Fighter Weapons School—and instructors with a minimum 2,000 hours each in their primary fighters. At Nellis’ Force Development Evaluations, where pilots brainstorm about what an aircraft is capable of, then test their speculations, these pilots developed a tactical playbook for the F/A-22.

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.

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