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F/A-22: air dominance for decades

November 1, 2005 (by Master Sgt. Orville F. Desjarlais Jr.) - By now, most people know the F/A-22 Raptor is a lean, mean fighting machine. But what about the people who fly it and fix it? What's it like to know your work, your aircraft, your mission, is to provide American air dominance for decades to come?
"Everybody is excited (about getting the F/A-22)," said Lt. Col. James Hecker, 27th Fighter Squadron commander, whose Langley Air Force Base, Va., squadron is the first operational unit to fly the Raptor.

"We're the people with the new toy on the block. The esprit de corps, excitement, pride and teamwork to make the plane go [initial operating capability] is incredible," Colonel Hecker said.

For members of the Air Force's oldest fighter squadron, the F/A-22 means different things to different people.

Maintenance friendly
With 40 percent fewer parts than current fighter aircraft engines and many of its vital components located on the bottom of the engine for easier access, the F/A-22's F119 engine is a hit in the maintenance community.

"As for reliability, I can't say [enough about] how great it is," said Chief Master Sgt. Larry Martin, an aircraft maintenance unit superintendent. "Also, we can replace an engine in 90 minutes, as opposed to about four hours with the F-15."

Airman David Zepeda, a 19-year-old from South Bend, Ind., likes the newness of the program.

"I'm proud because we're at the beginning of this program and starting out with nothing, so everything we do now will be used by people in the future," said the 1st Component Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion apprentice. "It's cool that we're part of a new jet program."

Another unique Raptor aspect is the maintainers' ability to use portable maintenance aids that resemble a laptop computer. Maintainers on the flightline connect the handheld devices to the Raptor and perform operational checks, look up maintenance history and technical data, and document work done on the aircraft. No longer are reams and reams of technical orders required on the flightline - saving time and paper.

Pilot's dream
"Because of all the things it can do, it takes fewer Raptors to complete a mission than F-15s or F-16s," said Capt. John Echols, a Langley F/A-22 pilot. "Saying the F/A-22 is a great aircraft is an understatement. It's well worth every cent."

Instead of cockpit knobs and controls, F/A-22 on-board computers do much of the flying for pilots, freeing them up to concentrate on the overall battle or mission.

"We can go against threats that F-15s and F-16s wouldn�t even think about trying to attack," Colonel Hecker said.

The air and ground threats the F-15 can no longer counter will be defeated by the F/A-22, according to Lockheed officials.

Perhaps the biggest advantage F/A-22 pilots have over others is the ability to shoot at the enemy before the enemy even knows a Raptor is there - that, and blazing speed. The faster they fly, the less time an enemy has to react. Combining speed with stealth equates to a lethal one-two punch for any enemy.

However, even with all that gee-whiz technology at their fingertips, Raptor pilots still need support, especially with intelligence.

Avoiding the threat
Senior Airman Brandon Wright is a 27th Fighter Squadron intelligence analyst at Langley. The 23-year-old joined the Air Force so he could play an active role in defending his country.

"I refresh pilots on the threats and what can shoot them down," Airman Wright said.

At first, the mission planning briefings he gave to pilots made him nervous. But now, it's all in a day's work.

"We're working with top-of-the-line aircraft," the Airman said. "It's important to the United States and the mission. I have a role in that and my role is important."

Unlike the aircraft, none who works with the F/A-22 is new. They have different levels of experience that intertwine with the service's newest fighter aircraft program. However, no matter how long they've been in the Air Force, there is a pioneer spirit that permeates the wing, and each of them - from airman basic to colonel - play their part in helping provide air superiority for decades to come.

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