The F-22 Raptor is the Air Force’s preeminent fighter aircraft that provides the United States unrivaled dominance in the air with its state-of-the-art capabilities. (U.S. Air Force video/Andrew Breese)
Col. Kevin Robbins still remembers the first time he saw the F-22 Raptor. He was driving near the flightline of then Langley Air Force Base when he heard a load roar and saw a plane streak across his field of vision and start performing several aerial maneuvers. He stopped the car, got out and stared in amazement. An F-15 Eagle pilot himself, the colonel couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“This plane was doing things that shouldn’t be possible in a jet,” he said. “I just kept thinking that if anyone tried that in any other plane, he’d be dead.”
The colonel wasn’t sure how the plane was able to do the things in the air that he was witnessing, but he couldn’t wait to find out. He applied for and was accepted to the F-22 program soon after.
Today, he not only flies the jet, but also leads some of the best pilots in the world as commander of the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Nearly a decade later, the F-22 still amazes him. The plane, a modern marvel of technology that’s a far cry from anything Robbins ever imagined flying, exceeds his expectations every time he gets in the cockpit. Even now, the colonel has a hard time believing he gets paid to fly the stealth jet.
“This plane is a game-changer,” he said. “It’s a cut above anything else out there, and its capabilities are simply amazing.”
Robbins felt this way right from the start. He still remembers his first Raptor flight, which he performed solo, because there isn’t a two-seat Raptor trainer.
“On the ground, it feels like a muscle car,” he said. “It feels all clunky, but you can feel the power just waiting to be released. Then, once you punch it and head into the air, it’s like a Ferrari with pure speed.”
One look at the jet dispels any thought that this is just another plane. There are no soft curves or bright paint. It is all hard edges and sweeping angles, a sleek aircraft that is both beautiful and menacing at the same time.
“It is a mean-looking aircraft,” Robbins said. “No doubt about it.”
This hard exterior serves a purpose. Combined, the plane’s angles, skin composition and paint scheme make it nearly invisible to radar’s electronic eye.
But the true menace of this plane lies beneath its exterior.
“The first time pilots fly this jet, they know it’s different,” said Maj. Brock Lange, an F-22 instructor pilot. “It flies like a jet, but with more power … a lot more power.”
That power is generated by the plane’s two Pratt & Whitney F119-PW-100 turbofan engines with afterburners and two-dimensional thrust-vectoring nozzles that are each capable of producing 35,000 pounds of thrust. That’s more thrust than in any current fighter, which allows the F-22 to cruise at more than 1,100 mph without using afterburner — a capability known as supercruise. This capability expands the F-22’s operating envelope in both speed and range over other fighters, which must use fuel-consuming afterburners to go supersonic.
While the F-22’s top speed is a guarded secret, pilots refer to it as simply “very fast.”
“Its unclassified top speed is Mach 2.0,” Lange said. “So, to say it’s fast is an understatement.”
What the plane has in engine power, it matches in firepower. Designed as an air-to-air weapon, the Raptor’s main mission is to destroy all aerial threats in the air space. However, it can also destroy ground threats.
“The F-22 is definitely a dual-role airplane,” Robbins said. “Nothing can match it in the air, and nothing can see it from the ground, which makes it very good at destroying ground targets and weapon systems.”
In its air-to-air configuration, the Raptor carries six AIM-120 advanced medium-range, air-to-air missiles and two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. It also has an M-61A2 20 mm cannon with 480 rounds. For air-to-ground missions, the jet carries the complement of two missiles, plus two 1,000-pound GBU-32 joint direct attack munitions internally.
Weapons and engines aside, the feature many pilots identify as the F-22’s most amazing is its maneuverability. Its design, advanced flight controls, integrated avionics and thrust-vectoring capability combine to give the Raptor the ability to perform once impossible aerial maneuvers. It can climb, spin, roll, fall and loop faster, tighter and more smoothly than any other fighter in the world. The plane gives pilots much more control and maneuverability.
“The aircraft’s advanced avionics allow you to perform maneuvers other planes can’t,” Robbins said. “Being able to outmaneuver another fighter is an incredible advantage in the air.”
To see the F-22 in the air is to see not just a machine, but also a bird of prey. The plane’s flight seems effortless, at times gravity-defying.
“The F-22 turns like no other aircraft out there,” Lange said. “So even if you do find yourself in a dogfight situation, there’s no way another jet will be able to keep up with you and turn as tight as you do in the Raptor.”
And, like a bird of prey, the Raptor can see a long way. It possesses a sophisticated sensor suite allowing the pilot to track, identify, shoot and kill air-to-air threats before anyone can detect it. For the enemy this means death; for Raptor pilots, this means increased survivability.
“Being able to see such a large battle space is invaluable,” Robbins said. “Seeing the enemy before he can see you is a great capability and every pilot’s dream.”
This ability also increases the survivability of other aircraft flying with the F-22. The Raptor can detect a threat and give other aircraft a heads-up long before the threat is in range.
With its increased speed, exceptional maneuverability, long-range vision of the battlespace, stealth capability and advanced weaponry, the F-22 has a significant advantage in the air.
This advantage means air dominance and superiority are not just catch phrases, but realities.
“It’s not fair at all if you’re the enemy,” Lange said. “But we don’t want it to be fair.”
The Raptor can be both an aggressor and a defender, and can terrorize enemies in the sky or on the ground, at close range or long distances.
Currently, there is no other aircraft that matches the F-22’s capabilities. During development, and at exercises like Northern Edge in Alaska, the F-22 logged kill after kill against a variety of fighter aircraft, to the point of frustrating pilots in the opposing aircraft.
“Yeah, I’m sure those guys get tired of being killed by Raptors,” Robbins said. “But when it’s all said and done, they respect the plane and are sure glad it’s on their side.”
For all of its technological advancements and capabilities, the F-22 is nothing if it can’t get off the ground. The fact that it does consistently is testament to the skill and dedication of the people who care for it. Like many F-22 pilots, a lot of F-22 maintainers moved over from working on F-15s and F-16 Fighting Falcons and had to learn the ins and out of this new high-tech aircraft.
“The F-22 is so different from other fighters,” said Master Sgt. Aaron Cowan, the lead production superintendent with the 94th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “It’s so technologically advanced. The systems are all integrated, and the onboard computer controls most of the aircraft.”
Because of this, maintainers not only have to learn how to work on the aircraft itself, but also the highly computerized system within it.
“It’s similar to being an auto mechanic who has to learn how to fix new cars that have computers that control everything,” said Tech Sgt. Joe Nickerson, an F-22 crew chief with the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing.
The F-22 fighter community has reason to boast: Raptor pilots, maintainers and engineers are racking up awards, records and accomplishments on a regular basis. But they aren’t cocky and they don’t rub their success in the faces of Airmen flying or working on other jets. Instead, they are appreciative.
“There is no swagger here,” Robbins said. “It’s a feeling of 100 percent respect for the plane and gratitude that we’re able to fly it. We’re not like, ‘We’re better than you because we fly the F-22.’ It’s more an attitude of how can we work together to get the most out of this aircraft.”
There’s a lot the Air Force can get out of the F-22. Robbins knows this every time he flies the mechanical bird of prey with the world far below and the sky stretching out around him. He looks down now and then just to see if maybe someone down there is stopping a car to get out and stare in amazement at the jet he’s flying.