By Eric Hehs
Ground Photos By Eric Hehs
Aerial Photos By John Dibbs And MSgt. Mike Ammons
From CodeOne Magazine
“We’ve been kicking everyone’s butt with this airplane,” says Lt. Col. Mike Stapleton in an animated briefing on the F/A-22 Raptor. Stapleton is the operations officer at the 43rd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall AFB, Florida, the Raptor schoolhouse. As a senior member of the first training squadron for the F/A-22, he doesn’t attempt to hide his enthusiasm for the Air Force’s latest fighter.
“Maneuverability with this airplane is unmatched in its entire envelope,” he says. “We can put on rapid g onsets and rapid pitch rates. We can hold very high angles of attack up to sixty degrees. At slow speeds, we can get nose yaw rates that exceed thirty degrees per second. No one else can fly like we can in the post-stall environment. But even in the pre-stall environment and at full combat weight, we enjoy exceptional maneuverability and thrust-to-weight ratios. We takeoff in afterburner, and we are airborne in about 800 feet. If we don’t pull the nose up quickly to slow the airplane down, we can be flying supersonic during climb-out. Fighter pilots love that kind of power. I’ve never flown a fighter that is so much better than the airplanes I’m flying against.”
Stapleton spends most of his days preparing to spread his Raptor knowledge, as well as his enthusiasm. “We are focused on getting the F/A-22 operational,” he says. “Our part of that is to train the pilots, maintainers, and air battle managers. When students leave Tyndall, they will have very few things to do before they take the jet into combat. We are defining the leading edge for the global strike concept, for how we train to a larger picture of coalition and joint warfare. A lot of people walking around this squadron are wearing B-2, F-117, Rivet Joint, Joint STARS, AWACS, and Space Command patches. We are working a lot of integration issues with these other platforms and commands. We want to make sure our tactical ties are tight.”
Raptor Evolution In Florida
Personnel at Tyndall began preparing for the F/A-22 well before the first Raptor was flown to the base in September 2003. The 43rd Squadron was stood up in October 2002 and moved into its own building two months later. The 43rd is one of four training squadrons that fall under the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall. The other three — the 1st, 2nd, and 95th — provide initial F-15 qualification training for new fighter pilots as well as conversion and recurrency training for existing pilots. As the designated instructional center for active-duty F-15 pilots, the 325th FW was the obvious training location for the Air Force’s new air dominance fighter.
Lt. Col. Jeff Harrigian, the commander of the 43rd, came to the unit from Tyndall’s 95th FS, where he was the operations officer. “We had a total of twenty-two people in the 43rd when our first F/A-22 arrived last September,” he explains. “Our initial seven instructor pilots came a few months earlier so we could get a head start on building a syllabus. These initial pilots had to learn how to fly the new jet as well as become subject matter experts in specific areas of employment and instruction.”
The first two F/A-22 pilots at Tyndall (Harrigian and Maj. Steven Luczynski) received their flight instruction at Nellis AFB, Nevada, where F/A-22 tactics development is taking place. Then they began producing their own Raptor pilots. Maj. Michael Hoepfner, an experienced F-16 pilot, became the first Tyndall graduate of this training last January.
“Our first challenge was to understand the airplane,” notes Harrigian. “Starting a new squadron with an existing airframe has its challenges, but I can borrow those procedures because it has been done before. Starting a new squadron with a new aircraft is much more difficult. No one gave me a playbook.”
Harrigian approached his task by handpicking his immediate personnel. The first seven instructor pilots are all graduates of the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School. Four of these were former Weapons School instructors. Five come from the F-15, and two from the F-16. The squadron will grow to an initial staff of seventeen instructor pilots by the end of 2004, with ten of the total coming from the F-15C community, three from F-15E, and four from F-16. The 43rd will have a full complement of twenty-eight F/A-22s and about an equivalent number of instructor pilots when fully staffed. Ten to fifteen students will be enrolled in the training at any one time.
Maintenance Training, Too
Pilot training, however, accounts for only one factor of the Raptor instructional equation at Tyndall. Future Raptor maintenance technicians receive their training here as well. The 372nd Training Squadron Detachment 4 (an AETC unit attached to Sheppard AFB, Texas) offers sixteen different courses that comprise four main maintenance training branches — avionics, crew chiefs, engines, and weapons.
“Most of our students are transitioning from the F-15 and F-16,” says TSgt. Kelly Martin, an F/A-22 maintenance instructor at Tyndall. “The students arrive highly motivated. Most of them have signed up for the Raptor. They want to see the airplane up close. They’ve seen all the high-tech Air Force ads on television, and they want to work on this fighter.”
The expectations of the high-tech television ads are met with a high-tech, paperless instructional approach. Students take their courses in classrooms equipped with flat-panel monitors that display instructional material in full color and high graphical detail. Animated graphics allow students to disassemble an engine on the screen. “The computer-aided instruction reduces the time we need an actual aircraft for training,” notes Martin. “We can show students the location of assemblies and how to access them before they see the airplane.”
Much of the training centers around a rugged and weather-resistant laptop called a portable maintenance aid. “The PMA replaces a library of technical data with a seven-pound laptop computer,” Martin says. “We use it in the classroom, on the aircraft, and for any task the maintainer performs.”
The PMA can be used separately or integrated with the classroom computer system. Maintainers can perform operation checks on the aircraft without climbing into the cockpit. Pilots fill out the aircraft forms on the computer. PMAs will eventually have RF capability so crew chiefs can transmit information directly to expediters or maintenance control from the ramp. They will be able to order parts while standing by the aircraft without going to the support sections. The maintenance status of a particular airplane can be checked just by logging on to the system
“The F/A-22 is very easy to work on,” notes Martin, an experienced maintainer who has been working on the advanced fighters for about two years. “The jet tells us what is wrong with it after it lands. It tells us what part needs to be replaced. The biggest challenge we face involves the access panels. We have to be more careful with them so we don’t damage the stealthy coatings. Still, this airplane is a huge step forward in terms of maintenance.”
More than $60 million of new construction related to the Raptor at Tyndall so far translates into new squadron buildings, maintenance hangars, a low-observable repair facility, and additions and updates to existing training buildings. With all the spending and attention focused on the F/A-22, Tyndall leadership is quick to emphasize that it takes an entire team to accomplish the air dominance training mission.
“When we added the Raptor side to our academic and simulation building, for example, we refurbished the Eagle side,” explains Brig. Gen Larry New, the commander of the 325th Fighter Wing. “We took the same approach with our maintenance facility. We renovated the entire building instead of just the F/A-22 section. We want everyone who works at Tyndall to feel that they are part of the same team. We are going to be operating the Eagle in the Air Force for the better part of the next two decades. We can’t forget about it or give it some second-class status.”
New also realizes that while the F/A-22 may enjoy a high profile within the Air Force, many are relatively unaware of the new fighter. “We need to educate people about the Raptor,” he says. “A lot of people in high places around the country don’t even realize the F/A-22 is flying. We are well into fielding the weapon system. We need to remind them why we are building the Raptor and what the aircraft means to the future of the United States in terms of our warfighting capability and our ability to defend our interests.”
The Raptor’s appearance at Tyndall has generated more curiosity than envy from F-15 pilots at the base. “Many Eagle pilots have flown against us and they want to understand the performance of the airplane — how it maneuvers,” explains Harrigian, who ferried the first Raptor from the factory to Tyndall. “The next biggest question I get relates to avionics. F-15 pilots want to know what the cockpit looks like and how the airplane presents information to the pilot. They ask if it is easy to fly, if it flies like an F-15.”
Harrigian’s own first impressions? “This airplane is incredible,” he says. “The performance is awesome. The first time I rolled the airplane I thought, ‘wow this thing is responsive.’ It is like flying a Cadillac that reacts like a Porsche. The cockpit is very comfortable. The F/A-22 is a heavy airplane that flies like a small airplane. The takeoff roll is impressive. A standard military power takeoff in the Raptor feels like an afterburner takeoff in the Eagle. I got used to the side stick placement after about two rides. A more significant difference is the sensitivity of the controls. Ever so slight of a movement with the stick and the flight controls react immediately. My stick is constantly moving when I fly an Eagle, especially when flying close formation. The stick is dead still in the Raptor unless I’m maneuvering aggressively.”
Instructor pilots at the 43rd, aside from learning the F/A-22, must deal with a clash of cultures of sorts as those with differences in reflexes, thought patterns, and terminology ingrained from years of flying either the F-15 or the F-16 work together to form a common syllabus for a completely new aircraft type.
“We see some terminology differences between F-15 and F-16 pilots,” notes Harrigian. “They have differing mind-sets about what mutual support means. The F-16 is a small airplane and F-16 pilots need to stay closer together to keep each other in sight. Eagle drivers, on the other hand, with their larger airplanes, tend to get farther away from each other.”
“An F-16 pilot thinks differently about tactical problems than an F-15 pilot,” Stapleton adds. “As an F-15 pilot, I don’t have as many limits on aircraft identification or weapons. I rely on beyond-visual-range identification and lots of AMRAAMs. My biggest tactical problem involves airborne threats defeating my missiles. F-16 pilots, who didn’t have identification capability until recently, are more concerned with getting their bombs on target and getting out unscathed.”
“The Raptor enjoys the best of both worlds,” says Harrigian. “F-16 and F-15 pilots might recommend different approaches for a given scenario. We ask if either approach applies to the Raptor. We have found that bits and pieces from each are appropriate. We also often take completely different approaches thanks to this airplane’s capabilities. We want to use lessons learned from legacy platforms, but we don’t want to hang onto them for no reason. We try to get all of these mind-sets on the table and create something that we can call the F/A-22 paradigm.”
The foundation of that new paradigm relates to doing away with sensor management tasks that demand a lot of time and effort in current fighter platforms. “F-16, F-15, and F/A-18 pilots spend a lot of time working sensor management, that is, making sure their radar search volumes are located in the right airspace,” says Stapleton. “They have to work mutual support issues with the sensors and populate their datalinks with the right information. Seventy-five percent of their effort goes into sensor management and twenty-five percent goes into actually employing the systems — getting the airplane where it needs to be and putting the weapon on a target.
“The Raptor is 180-degrees different,” Stapleton continues. “The airplane does so much of the work at a digitized level behind the screen that I, as a weapon system operator, can sit back and think about the kind of operational effects that the commanders want to achieve. I have time to consider how to provide the right amount of mutual support to the other joint coalition forces. Not spending all my time thinking where the radar should go, in and of itself, is going to break open a whole new dynamic in air warfare. We will see this airplane reach its true potential as soon as some of our younger guys start operating it. They will come up with stuff that we haven’t even considered.”
New Airframe, New Skills
Instructor pilots at the 43rd have to build a syllabus for generating new pilots who will break those old paradigms. “We’re not just flying a new airplane,” Harrigian explains. “We are determining the skills required to fly the airplane. We have to create a building block approach for teaching someone to operate the Raptor. The F/A-22 performs significantly different from an F-15 and an F-16. So we spend some time in the early training to get the pilots accustomed to these differences. We show them how the airplane reacts to inputs and how it flies throughout the envelope. Then we fly one against one against a dissimilar aircraft. We’re using the same generic training philosophy that we use for the F-15 and F-16. We build upon what the student has already learned and then add another task each step of the way.”
Tyndall pilots are working on syllabi as they prepare for the summer arrival of their next seven instructor pilots, as well as for the fall arrival of the first students who will form the first operational F/A-22 squadron at Langley AFB, Virginia. The basic course, called the B-course, will last about six months and is designed for a pilot right out of a T-38 and lead-in fighter training. Experienced fighter pilots take a three-month transition course. (The unit will also offer a separate transition course, basically instrument rating instruction, for senior officers.) A separate two-month course, upgrading instructor pilots, prepares instructors for teaching at the 43rd. All student pilots go through about eight 1.5-hour sessions in an F/A-22 simulator before strapping into the Raptor cockpit.
“That first flight can be fairly intimidating,” Stapleton says. “Working through the PMA, instead of touching actual Air Force forms with grease on them, can put off your sense of balance. But I quickly found the F/A-22 to be a forgiving, powerful, and capable airplane.”
The superior capability of the F/A-22 will have a dramatic effect on training. “When I prepare a wingman to go to war in an F-15, I have to face the fact that the F-15 is at parity with some existing aircraft. None of them can beat the F-15 in all performance dynamics, but a lot of potential adversaries have two or three advantages that I have to take into account. We can beat them because we have better training. An F/A-22, on the other hand, gives me vastly superior capability. So my job as an instructor is to make sure our pilots perform the Raptor to its full potential.
“Getting a new airframe is an event to be celebrated,” Stapleton concludes in his briefing. “As you can see from our 1978 vintage F-15s sitting out here, new airframes don’t come around very often. Their software, however, evolves. The Raptors you see on the ramp today are awesome. Even with an elementary version of the software that we are flying, we are still kicking everyone’s butt. That tells me that this airplane will only get better.”
Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.