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.
F-15s and F-16s fly in close visual formation; because they’re not stealthy, they must work together to scan the airspace in front of them. “In an F-15, you live and die by putting your radar in the right piece of sky to find threats and ID them,” says Cabral. But looking from the ground to 60,000 feet—120 degrees of sky—takes the F-15C’s radar 14 seconds. Flying within visual formation, the flight lead takes the low half and the wingman takes the high half. A sensor called the Radar Warning Receiver indicates if an airplane or a SAM is looking at you. Flying at 500 knots (575 mph), Cabral says he alternates between the RWR and radar, while using “my eyeballs and moving my head to look for stuff. If the radars pick something up—bandits are merely green blips, and you don’t know if a blip is one airplane or two close together—I have to ask: Do I need to defend myself? Is it a threat? Or do I need to call an AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft] and give them the information?”
Flying and fighting in the F-15 is “task prioritization,” Cabral continues. “You have to generate a mental picture of the airspace and battlefield in your mind. Sometimes I even literally sketch a picture on my kneepad, all while talking on comms and cross-checking the systems.”
In the Raptor, on the other hand, the radar sweeps 120 degrees of sky instantly, and computers synthesize the incoming data and display the results on a single eight-inch-square color display. Bandits are red triangles; their flight path, altitude, and relative speed are apparent at a glance. Friendlies are green circles. Unknown aircraft are yellow squares, other F/A-22s are blue. SAM sites are depicted as yellow pentagons, the sizes varying relative to the distance at which the radars can pick up the stealthy Raptors. The Raptor’s radar range is classified, but Stapleton says he has “seen targets beyond 320 miles.” Attack and defensive displays, respectively on the right and left of the main display, can show tactical information in even more detail. The attack display, for instance, can show all tracked aircraft—“tracks”—in the current shoot list, which tracks you’ve deployed missiles against, and what the status of those missiles is. The defensive display, on the other hand, might show which tracks are illuminating the Raptor and what their range is. Says Dave “Shotgun” Lopez, a pilot in the 43rd: “The airplane is just a huge sponge in the sky soaking up information.”
Cabral recalls that in one training exercise, “I was flying a -15 with Raptors against SAMs, and the Raptor is high, ‘meching’ the space [working the radar mechanics to scan the airspace], calling where everything is. I don’t have to work the radar mechanics myself. I put the missile in the air and make the kill and no one even sees the Raptor.”