The Air Force ordered a stand-down of its F-22 Raptor fleet on May 3 after reports of potential malfunctions in the oxygen system. The investigation has since expanded to include all aspects of the aircraft, according to Air Combat Command, which is headquartered at Langley.
Just like that, the familiar, twin-tailed silhouette disappeared from the skies over the Peninsula.
But Raptor pilots at Langley are not exactly twiddling their thumbs waiting for the all-clear.
They’ve ramped up training in a high-tech simulator and are spending more time in the classroom. Maintenance crews are handling more ambitious projects – work they could never do during the normal flight cycle.
And time in the gym? It’s on the rise. Fighter pilots are not exactly low-energy individuals.
“The guys are getting antsy,” said Lt. Col. Jason Hinds, director of operations for the 27th Fighter Squadron.
The F-22 simulator at Langley has become a popular place — not just with Langley pilots, but throughout the Air Force. It is only one of two F-22 simulators in the service; the other is at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida.
Since the stand down, pilots from Hawaii, New Mexico and elsewhere have come to Langley to train, said Capt. Travis Passey, training flight commander in the Operational Support Squadron. This past week, pilots from Alaska were at the base.
“For the next three months, we’ve got people booked to come here to operate in our simulators,” Passey said.
The clam shell-like simulator gives pilots a 360-degree view of their virtual surroundings. Around 6 feet in diameter, it sits inside a building about the size of a four-car, two-story garage, and is ringed by cameras.
Simulators have some advantages. It is easier to practice against multiple adversaries in the virtual world than in the real one. Pilots can simulate emergency conditions and flying through bad weather.
But it can’t do everything. ”You can’t simulate the environment of flying with the Gs and some of the stresses that you have on your body, the heat, things like that,” Passey said.
Another difference involves taking chances. ”The risk isn’t there,” said Lt. Col. Pete Fesler, commander of the 27th Fighter Squadron. “That risk equates to stress. You can’t really hit the ground in a simulator. Obviously, you can in a real airplane, so you tend to take risks that are a little bit higher when you fly the simulator because there’s no threat to you or the airplane.”
But it does help, the pilots say, as does increased classroom time. Pilots are going through weapons and tactics briefings and receiving intelligence updates on relevant situations from around the world, said Hinds.
“We’re keeping our brains engaged with the … numbers they have memorized,” Hinds said. “I guarantee you, these guys can tell you everything about the Raptor and everything about the primary-threat airplanes we fly against.”
Maintenance during the stand-down is a multi-sided issue. On the positive side, the aircraft are not experiencing wear and tear. But in a way, that’s also a down side for crew chiefs and maintainers.
“Because we’re not flying those airplanes and breaking them, they’re not necessarily getting the level of training that they would typically get to fix some of the things that break,” said Fesler.
The crews have adapted. Master Sgt. Leroy Higgs, a crew chief and production superintendent for the 94thAircraft Maintenance Unit, said his crews have taken on more advanced “high interest” projects. It might be removing and reinstalling a major component of the F-22 – something never practiced because they’ve never had a major breakdown.
Langley also plans to ramp up activity on its flight line in the near future. They will prepare the Raptor as if to fly. Pilots will don their equipment. Traffic controllers and weather forecasters will do their jobs.
Then the Raptor will taxi to the end of the runway and return. That doesn’t sound like much, but that short trip will enable the pilots and maintenance crews to get a lot more data about the condition of the airplane, and fix potential problems.
Fesler said Langley should emerge from the stand down – whenever that is – with a stronger maintenance capability.
And while they’re anxious to return to the sky, the pilots will do it step by step, gradually increasing activity and the complexity of their missions. Residents of Hampton shouldn’t expect crowded skies right away.
“We proposed the shotgun start,” joked Fesler. “Fire off the air horn, everyone rushes to the airplane and flies it, but figured that might not probably be the most effective way.”
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