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DoD photo by Master Sgt. Keith Baxter, USAF (Master Sgt. Keith Baxter, USAF)

The Raptor Rocks

F-22s treat airshow fans to a maneuverability demo.

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The Air Force calls them "aerial demonstrations." But the Oshkosh crowd transfixed by two F-22 Raptors that flew in from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia would call it one helluva show. I happened to be at the Cirrus aircraft sales pavilion at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Wisconsin avfest last month when the fighters showed up. Sales, along with all other activities on the airshow grounds (which are vast), were suspended for the 20 minutes or so that the F-22s flew. In fact, conversation was suspended; the grounds were spookily quiet except for an occasional collective gasp when one of the F-22s would fling itself around the sky.

We’ve all seen Air Force F-15s shoot straight up at airshows and disappear in the high-altitude distance. The Raptor doesn’t disappear. The Raptor shoots upward, then stops. It hangs in the air. And while spectators on the ground are thinking they’d like to start breathing again, the pilot lowers the nose as if he’s told the airplane, "Drop and gimme 20." And then it tears off, away from the show grounds, and disappears.

How do they do that?

"The airplane has a lot of excess power—more thrust than it weighs, depending on how much fuel is on board," says Lt. Col. Michael Shower, the only F-22 demo pilot in the Air Force. The F-22 has two 35,000-pound thrust Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 engines. (The F-15’s engines by comparison, produce less than 30,000 pounds of thrust.) But the F-22 engines have an additional advantage: They can direct their thrust.

"What happens is this," Shower explains. "When I get to the top of that climb, for all practical purposes, I’m at zero airspeed. And so the airplane is just kinda hanging there on its power. When I get up there, I push forward on the stick [to drop the nose]. I still have flight control authority because the motors in the back have nozzles that move up and down. When I push forward on the stick, the nozzles go down, and all that thrust goes off the paddles on those nozzles, and the nose just goes "gink," and falls straight forward like you saw. Then when the nose gets down to horizontal, or level with the horizon, I pull back on the stick, the nozzles go from down to up, and they go "gink" and hold the nose right there at level. And then I just fly straight out of it."

Those "ginks" are technical terms for "thrust vectoring," and the F-22 is the only operational airplane that has it. With thrust vectoring, Shower can also pull back on the stick when he’s vertical and bring the nose backward into a cobra maneuver, first made famous by the Russian Sukhoi Su-27. The aircraft appears to skid forward on its tail.

Shower was joined at Oshkosh that day by Col. Thomas Bergeson, who entertained us with high-speed, excruciatingly loud passes in another Raptor while Shower flew off to collect his airplane for its next stunt. One of them he calls "the helicopter." The airplane is falling straight down, but rotating in a spin. This is one of Shower’s favorites—the guy must have a stomach made of titanium.

The jet can sustain over 30 degrees per second of yaw, he marvels. "Thirty degrees per second in an F-15? The beeper’s going off and I’m in an uncontrollable spin. But in an F-22, it’s totally controllable, and you’re just going ‘dit da dit da duh,’ " he hums. "And I’ll push the pedal the other way, and it will just stop and go 30 degrees in the opposite direction." Shower laughs in gleeful disbelief that an airplane will allow him to have this much fun.

He’s seen demos and videos of performances by the Russian MiG 29 and Sukhoi Su 35, and admits that their maneuverability is probably on a par with the F-22. "I can do everything they can do and vice versa," he says. "We can all do some pretty neat stuff. But I love this part of it: That’s all they have. They don’t have the stealth , they don’t have the supercruise, they don’t have the integrated sensors, the avionics. We have an aircraft that does everything a fighter pilot has ever wanted to do. It has it all—you can tell by the price tag," he says, (about $137 million per copy, or $338 million if you count in all the Air Force's research costs).

For their performance, which started at 2:40 p.m., Shower and Bergeson took off from Langley, 800 miles away, at about 1:25. "We were going slow," Shower says. "We were only doing about .9 Mach. Over the continental United States, there’s only a couple of places we’re allowed to go supersonic so we don’t scare everybody. But we did the math and figured we could be there if we supercruised in about 25 or 30 minutes."

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