A US Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet, which skidded along the runway on its belly during takeoff at Nevada in April 2018, is set to return to the service.
Latest reports reveal that the US Air Force (USAF) is hopeful that the F-22 Raptor, which suffered serious damage during the accident, will be back in a few months after undergoing intensive repair work.
The service has shared some details of the repair work being done on the Raptor as part of its efforts to highlight the contributions of the airmen to this intensive repair work.
The F-22 Raptor, bearing the serial number 07-4146, which was involved in the accident, belonged to the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Alaska but was in Nevada at that time for participating in the graduation ceremony of the US Navy’s Top Gun fighter pilot training program.
According to the accident investigation report, the crash was caused due to pilot error. The pilot did not suffer any injuries.
“The Raptor’s takeoff and landing data — which is used to set the speed for rotation, or when the pilot pulls back on the stick to lift the plane’s nose, and set the takeoff pitch attitude and takeoff speed — was calculated for a 10,000-foot runway at sea level, which are conditions at Elmendorf”, the report said.
The report further added that the Raptor took off at an airspeed that was 16 or 17 percent lower than the required airspeed. Due to this, the F-22 was airborne for a very short duration of time but could not stay in the air as it did not have enough lift and thus it came back down on the runway.
The public affairs office at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson released new information regarding the work that has gone into the restoration of the 07-4146 on December 21. It is still unclear how much the complete restoration of the 07-4146 will cost the Air Force.
Reports state that the damage suffered by the 07-4146 was severe and it took a month for a team of Air Force personnel, who had traveled to Fallon to safely dismantle the Raptor, to bring it back to its home base in Alaska on a C-5 Galaxy cargo plane.
“We had to fit it into a C-5, so we took off everything that was damaged and everything that wouldn’t fit dimensionally”, Air Force Staff Sgt. Ethan Rentz, who is an F-22 crew chief belonging to the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU), said. He was also involved in the complete repair process of the Raptor.
“We removed the wings and vertical stabilizers, and the whole belly of the F-22 because those panels were damaged and burnt. We couldn’t have those panels flapping around or breaking off during transit”, Rentz added.
“Everything worked out in the simulations, so the aircraft was put in our hangar in January 2020 and put on stands”, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kevin Fitch, another F-22 crew chief from the 3rd AMU who was also a part of this work, said.
“That’s when the complete strip started – the wire harnesses, the struts, and the bulkhead. It was down to the bones of the fuselage at that point”, he said.
“Contractors, engineers, and structures personnel spent about 16 months replacing almost the whole bottom of the aircraft, the fuselage stations, and more than 40 wire harnesses. Our active-duty guys didn’t start having a hand in the rebuild until June this year”, Fitch further added.
Describing the repair work being done on the 07-4146, the Air Force said it sounded more like a complete refurbishment of the aircraft. The fact that F-22 Raptors have been long out of production and that the size of its fleet is extremely small made the entire process more complicated.
The Air Force currently has 186 Raptors in service, out of which, 125 aircraft have been assigned to combat-coded units. The remaining are kept aside for training and evaluation purposes or have been sidelined for other unspecified reasons.
Rentz said that “Fitch has been coordinating with multiple different [maintenance] backshops and agencies to source the parts necessary to get 07-4146 flying again”. Parts of the aircraft which were recovered from the Raptor post the accident or were retained during the repair work, have been put back on the aircraft.
These included parts as small as the fasteners to extremely high tolerances which are required for keeping the Raptor’s radar cross-section as small as possible.
“Right now the biggest challenge is acquiring parts because the F-22 isn’t manufactured anymore”, Fitch explained. The Raptor being out of production was just one of the obstacles faced during the restoration process of the 07-4146.
Subcontractors responsible for developing certain parts of the aircraft, who might not be functional right now, and the loss of institutional knowledge during all these years, resulted in the Air Force spending extra money on the re-engineering of these parts and technologies.
The Air Force has set the goal of bringing the jet back into service by March 2022. “Some of the parts won’t be available until summer or fall of 2022, so we’ll probably end up canning those from aircraft that are going to be down for a while,” Fitch said.
“It’s really important we get this jet back in flight. Five months ago it had no struts, no wings, no flight controls, no hydraulics, no stabilizers. Seeing the progress and doing something out of the ordinary has been really rewarding”, he further explained. If all goes as planned, the 07-4146 can be seen flying with the 3rd Fighter Wing by the end of Spring next year.