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F-22 pilots fire live missiles at Combat Archer

325th Fighter Wing

A U.S. Air Force 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron QF-16 Aerial Target travels down the flightline at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., July 11, 2018. Tyndall’s 82nd Aerial Target Squadron fulfills a Title 10 U.S. Code requirement and is responsible for ensuring the safe and effective testing of various weapon systems through the use of QF-16, full-scale aerial targets capable of both manned and unmanned flight. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa/Released)

325th Fighter Wing

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., travels down the flightline at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., July 11, 2018. The Raptors were a part of Checkered Flag 18-2, a large-scale aerial exercise designed to integrate fourth and fifth-generation airframes to enhance the capabilities of Airmen while providing training to rapidly respond to current, real-world conflicts and preparing for the future of air superiority. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sergio A. Gamboa/Released)


More than 200 pilots, maintainers and operations support staff from the 1st Fighter Wing are gaining firsthand experience in loading and firing live missiles at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida from July 6-20, 2018.


During these two weeks, the 1FW from Joint Base Langley Eustis, Virginia, is participating in Combat Archer as part of the Weapons System Evaluation Program, in conjunction with Checkered Flag 18-2. The goal of these combined exercises is to train and evaluate the F-22 Raptor and other weapons systems under simulated combat environments, to include firing live missiles against remotely piloted targets. While many units and military aircraft come together for major exercises a few times a year, Combat Archer is unique because it’s one of the few opportunities pilots have to fire live missiles in training.


“Outside of combat missions and operational or developmental test flights, the 1FW doesn’t train with live missiles,” said Capt. Robert Pupilis, 1FW project officer for Combat Archer/Checkered Flag 18-2. “It’s an opportunity that is not taken for granted, and for some pilots, this exercise is the first time they have ever fired a live missile. “


Pupilis said, the experience of firing a live missile is difficult to explain.


“You prepare yourself, study your shot profile and every possible thing that could go wrong,” Pupilis said. “When flying [in position to take the shot], you are soda straw-focused, and you tend to experience temporal distortion. When you hit the button (that fires the missile), it takes only a few moments for the missile to leave the jet and launch in a smoke trail across your nose.  For my first shot, those few seconds seemed like 100, but once you catch up to reality, the feeling of awe is hard to forget.”


According to a welcome letter from the host unit, the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group, Combat Archer is not just a training event; it is a formal evaluation of the total weapon system (man, machine, and missile) and a squadron's ability to conduct air-to-air missions. It is a rare opportunity for squadrons to load live weapons and shoot them at threat-realistic targets. The goal is to maximize live-fire experience throughout the Combat Air Force, so priority is given to first-time shooters.


This training and live-fire experience is critical to Raptor pilots, as air superiority is the primary mission for the F-22. In addition to the experience pilots and maintainers gain from loading and launching live missiles during Combat Archer, Checkered Flag provides the opportunity to work alongside multiple weapons systems and services.


“In one fight, more than 50 aircraft may participate from multiple services, including 4th and 5th generation fighter jets, bomber platforms, refueling aircraft, and command and control aircraft,” Pupilis said. “At Langley, typical training consists of only F-22s and T-38 Talons.  Being able to integrate with the other fighters on the same side of the fight, and fight against different platforms on the enemy side provides great training for all involved.”


In total, the JBLE’s F-22s and T-38s are scheduled to fly 300 sorties. The F-22 will hopefully shoot 20 missiles: five AIM-120 medium range missiles and 15 AIM-9 heat seeking missiles.


According to Pupilis, A lot of work and planning goes into launching that many jets and firing 20 missiles, but Combat Archer provides unparalleled live-fire experience for the pilots and maintainers of the 1FW, as the F-22 Raptor continues to be the most dominant air superiority fighter in the world.