NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (ACCNS) --
"Undercover" is an understatement for the F-22A Raptor.
A point clearly illustrated by pilots of the 94th Fighter Squadron, who delivered an aerial sucker punch to the seasoned Red Force
opponents during the F-22A's debut at Red Flag here Feb. 3 -16.
Among the Blue Force participants were foreign pilots from the Royal Air Force of England and Royal Australian Air Force, flying the GR-4 and F-111C respectively. In addition, the F-22s flew with the B-2 Spirit and F-117 Nighthawk, the aircraft that pioneered stealth.
Though better known for its stealth capability, the F-22 packs a list of surprises cherished by Raptor pilots and coveted by others. In addition to radar evasion, this fifth-generation fighter features unmatched maneuverability, surprising power (supercruise) and integrated avionics or sensor fusion (multiple displays combined into one). Even aircraft maintainers said they enjoy superior logistics such as computerized technical orders, reduced trouble shooting and faster remove-and-replace components, such as engine changes. These Raptor advantages were demonstrated and sharpened at Red Flag.
Fourteen Raptors and 197 people were present from the 94th FS. The F-22's debut at the Red Flag exercise is a significant milestone for the jet, according to Lt. Col. Dirk Smith, 94th FS commander.
The exercise is an advanced, realistic combat training exercise designed for fighter pilots, and conducted over the vast Nellis Range Complex, which measures 60 by 100 nautical miles. The training involves air-to-air engagements as well as engagement with ground targets, such as mock airfields, convoys, and other ground defensive positions.
Invisibility - even with eyes on
When the Raptor finds itself in a dogfight, it is no longer beyond visual range, but the advantage of stealth isn't diminished. It maintains "high ground" even at close range.
"I can't see the [expletive deleted] thing," said RAAF Squadron Leader Stephen Chappell, exchange F-15 pilot in the 65th Aggressor Squadron. "It won't let me put a weapons system on it, even when I can see it visually through the canopy. [Flying against the F-22] annoys the hell out of me."
Lt. Col. Larry Bruce, 65th AS commander, admits flying against the Raptor is a very frustrating experience. Reluctantly, he admitted "it's humbling to fly against the F-22," - humbling, not only because of its stealth, but also its unmatched maneuverability and power.
Turn and burn
Thrust vectoring, internal weapons mounting and increased power all contribute to the Raptor's maneuvering advantage. From the cockpit of the F-22, Capt. Brian Budde, 94th FS pilot, explained the F-22 is able to sustain more than nine Gs for much longer than the F-15, without running out of airspeed. From the pilot's perspective, the F-22 "is more power than you know what to do with," said Captain Budde. So much power, in fact, the F-22 enjoys capabilities alien to legacy fighters.
This boost of thrust enables the Raptor to take off with a full load of weapons and fuel. Furthermore, mach speeds are attainable without afterburners (supercruise) and coincidently, the F-22 features better fuel efficiency than legacy fighters. This increased fuel efficiency raises eyebrows considering the F-22 boasts 20,000 more pounds of thrust than the F-15 Eagle it's replacing.
Sensor Fusion: 'One display vs. many'
"The F-22 is an air-to-air machine compared to the legacy fighters [used today],"said Captain Budde.
One of the Raptor's prized novelties is sensor fusion, or integrated avionics. Tech. Sgt. Al Perkins, 1st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-22 specialist, explained sensor fusion, or integrated avionics, as a computerized gathering of all information from each avionics system and consolidating them on one display for the convenience of the pilot.
"[The F-15 pilot] has to gather his own data from different displays in the cockpit and draw his own conclusions about his situation, and then take action," said Sergeant Perkins. "But in the F-22, all the information is coordinated and available from a single source." He explained this capability frees the pilot from the tedious task of calculating and enables faster decisions making in the air.
Not surprisingly, the Air Force is convinced that the F-22's integrated avionics system is one of the key elements that will give the F-22 the tactical advantage against threats of the future.
Superior Logistics: A maintainer's friend
"I've been to Red Flag before as an F-15 crew chief," said Senior Airman Ryan Thomas, 94th Aircraft Maintenance Unit F-22 crew chief, "and it's fast-paced and full of long hours - 12 plus hours every day."
Not this time. For maintenance Airmen at Red Flag this year, shifts have eased back to less than nine hours a day. The reason: F-22 airframes are more "friendly."
"This jet was designed to be maintenance friendly," he said. Systems, like hydraulic lines, are more accessible and the airframe is brand new, which makes it less susceptible to problems associated with the 25-year old F-15s. Not only this, but the F-22 enables "the fastest engine change I've ever seen," added Airman Thomas. "We change this engine in less than two hours, compared to six-hour engine change on the F-15." Engine changes, however, were none existent for Airmen in the 94th AMU - the Raptors required none.
But perhaps the most obvious maintenance advantage utilized daily by crew chiefs is the Portable Maintenance Aide. This computer device keeps all the aircraft forms - electronically. The Raptor is a paper free airplane; they each have their own hard drive that stores computer-identified malfunctions and gives the crew chief an exact explanation of the problem.
When the 94th FS flew F-15s at past Red Flags, maintenance crews faced longer hours because their jets broke so often, said Tech. Sgt. John Ferrara, 94th AMU avionics specialist. Plus, every broken jet required hours of trouble shooting. The F-22 is different.
"This jet is diagnosing itself before it's breaking," said Sergeant Ferrara. "We're going right to the fix every time." Ironically, some maintainers feel the F-22 robs them of a challenge.
"This thing takes the fun out of being a crew chief," said Staff Sgt. Jason Kraemer, 94th AMU crew chief. "You're not even dirty when you go home."
At Red Flag, and at war, this advantage means a faster maintenance turnaround, and eventually faster engagement, said Airman Thomas.
The Challenge - 'This ain't your daddy's Red Flag anymore'
Despite the F-22's "unfair advantage," flying against the Red Force aggressors of the 414th Combat Training Squadron is no walk in the park, according to Colonel Smith. Aggressor pilots are made up of F-16 and F-15 pilots, specially trained to replicate tactics and techniques of potential adversaries said Maj. Bill Woolf, 57th Adversary Tactics Group assistant director of operations. In addition, he said the Red Flag is involved in a major reformation, designed to duplicate the world's most lethal threats.
"These scenarios are not made to be easy," said Colonel Smith. "The [Red Force] pilots are well trained and good at their job."
Also, Red Forces aren't limited to aggressor pilots. There is no shortage of ground threats at Red Flag. These include electronically simulated surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, communications jamming, Global Positioning System jamming and more said Major Woolf.
We're training now against emerging threats," said Major Woolf. "We need to understand what tactics are real-world threats, and duplicate them [for the Blue Forces]."
In fact, the Red Flag exercise is now so intense one 414th CTS critique quotes a squadron commander saying "This ain't your daddy's Red Flag anymore."
Thus it is understood the people of the Blue Forces, like those in the 94th, are pushed to the limit, working 12-hour days and fighting two "wars" in a 24-hour period. Colonel Smith added that humans still operate the F-22 - and the human mind is fallible.
The goal, he said, is sharpening the Air Force - and that involves grinding away imperfections. Is the exercise difficult for the F-22 pilots? "Yes," said Colonel Smith. "You bet it is. But [Peyton] Manning didn't make it to the Super Bowl by practicing against a scrub team."