May 1, 2012 (by Capt. Ashley Conner) - F-22 pilots from the 302nd, 525th and 90th Fighter Squadrons tested their aim during a banner shoot April 23-27.
A 3- ship of USAF F-22 Raptors from the 3rd FW, Elmendorf AFB fly for a training mission during Red Flag 11-3 on March 2nd, 2011. [USAF photo by SrA. Brett Clashman]
A banner shoot is best described as aerial target practice for the F-22. The pilots fire the F-22's 20 millimeter cannon at a banner, measuring 8 feet wide and 40 feet long, being towed behind a Cessna 441 Conquest II.
"We do it to maintain combat readiness and ensure we can use the gun when needed," said Lt. Col. Joseph Kunkel, 90th Fighter Squadron commander. "Everyone from the ammo troops delivering the bullets, to the weapons troops loading the bullets to pilots shooting them at the target is exercised."
In one sortie the Raptors fire 420 bullets in 100 bullet bursts between 1,000 to 2,500 feet away from the banner. For safety reasons the pilots don't get close enough to the banner while in-flight to see if they hit the banner.
While this might seem like a risky job for the tow plane pilot there are also measures in place to ensure his safety.
"I'm not worried about hitting the piloted tow airplane with rounds because we take necessary precautions not to point the gun towards the aircraft, only the banner that is being towed approximately 2000 feet behind," said Maj. Jeremy Weihrich, 302nd FS
F-22 pilot. "You have to remain aware of your surroundings and ensure the weapon is not pointed where it shouldn't be, very similar to a pistol or rifle gun range."
Weihrich said that flying the F-22 armed with bullets feels stable and identical to flying a jet not carrying live rounds.
"The big difference is the noise and rumble of the 20 millimeter M-61A2 Gatlin gun," said Weihrich. "The first few times I shot the gun, it startled me with the noise and vibration induced as a result of the 100 rounds a second being expended. In fact, it still gives me the chills each opportunity I get to employ the weapon."
Once the sortie is complete the tow aircraft drops the banner at Donnelly Airfield, near Fairbanks, Alaska where a team picks it up for collection and inspection at the end of the week.
This is the first time the banner was made locally which if effective will significantly reduce the cost of gun employment sorties. The 3rd Wing Weapons shop will analyze the effectiveness of this banner as compared to the banners used in other weapon system exercises.
Although banner shoots are yearly requirements for Raptor pilots it will be the first time shooting for a few wingmen in both the 90th and 525th FS.
"This is the first time I have shot the F-22 gun but I have been fortunate enough to shoot a very similar gun many times in the Australian F/A-18s," said Flt. Lt. Mark Biele 90th FS Australian F-22 exchange pilot. "The training and the careful preparation make this a very controlled, calculated event. There is no substitute for live bullets, missiles, and bombs from a training perspective. (In future banner shoots) I look forward to impressive squadron results and high levels of maintenance proficiency."
The Reserve pilots assigned to the 302nd FS make up a small group of experienced pilots lending their expertise to enhance the total force mission.
"Most (Reserve F-22 pilots) have experience with live-gun employment in the F-22 and nine are instructors for this mission," said Weihrich. "It speaks volumes to the Reservist contribution to gaining and maintaining F-22 live weapons experience here. It's that experience that gives pilots confidence in their systems and weapons to perform as expected in a combat situation."
This training comes the week before the last F-22 will be delivered from the Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta, Ga. to the 525th FS.
Editors note: Lt. Col. Joseph Kunkel was the commander of the 90th Fighter Squadron during the banner shoot but relinquished command to Lt. Col. Nicholas Reed during a change of command ceremony here April 27.