An Air Force F-22 Raptor flew once again May 4, five years after it suffered extensive damage from a botched takeoff on April 13, 2018.
With only 186 Raptors in the entire Air Force inventory, getting just one of the formidable air-to-air fighters back to operations represents a significant achievement for the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, where the F-22 is assigned.
“There are only so many F-22s in the inventory,” Chief Master Sgt. Adam Willeford, the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron senior enlisted leader, said in a press release. “Every aircraft in the fleet is highly valuable for mission success, so returning this one to operational status is a big win for the team.”
An Accident Investigation Board blamed the 2018 crash on incorrect takeoff and landing data, an inadequate flight brief, and the pilot prematurely retracting the landing gear. The pilot was taking off from Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., for a TOPGUN graduation exercise when the mishap occurred. The pilot rotated the aircraft—bringing the nose up—at 120 knots, and as the aircraft indicated its wheels were leaving the ground, the pilot retracted the landing gear. Immediately after the landing gear retracted, the aircraft “settled” back on the runway with the doors fully closed.
The Raptor slid about 6,500 feet down the runway before coming to a stop, at which point the uninjured pilot got out of the cockpit. The investigation board later found the pilot should have achieved a higher speed before rotation, but that aviators within the F-22 community tended to be overconfident that the jet’s high thrust could “overcome deviations from [takeoff and landing data]. This perception has led to a decreased emphasis on the takeoff data.”
The board did not specify the exact cost of the mishap, but the recovery process was extensive, with the fighter having to be partially rebuilt in order to reenter service. Maintainers started by disassembling the jet and shipping it back to Alaska aboard a C-5 Galaxy transport jet—disassembly alone took a month.
“We took off everything that was damaged and everything that wouldn’t fit dimensionally,” Staff Sgt. Ethan Rentz, a crew chief with the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU), said in a 2021 press release. “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.”
When the aircraft returned to Alaska, the Air Force first had to determine if it was even worth restoring. The simulations suggested it was, said Tech. Sgt. Kevin Fitch, another crew chief with the 3rd AMU. In January 2020, the Raptor was mounted on stands in a hangar and stripped of its wire harnesses, struts, and bulkheads.
“It was down to the bones of the fuselage at that point,” Fitch said in a release.
It took 16 months for contractors, engineers, and structures experts to replace the entire bottom of the aircraft, the fuselage stations, and more than 40 wire harnesses. It was not until June 2021 that Active-Duty Airmen finally got involved in the rebuild. Fitch kept inventory lists and spreadsheets to track the large number of replacement parts the damaged jet required.
“Sgt. Fitch picked this up from nothing,” Rentz said in the release. “He’s operating at a master or senior master sergeant level because he’s not just handling crew chief tasks, he’s coordinating with multiple different backshops and agencies. He’s essentially running a one-man aircraft squadron.”
Gathering parts was the biggest challenge for repairing the Raptor, since the jet and its replacement parts are no longer manufactured. The recovery process may have taken even longer if another F-22 had not crashed at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in 2022, when its landing gear collapsed. Maintainers from the JBER-based 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit journeyed to Eglin to cannibalize parts from the downed Raptor, including the leading edge, two flaps, and a seat.
Though the cannibalizing will prolong the recovery time for the Eglin F-22, it helped the JBER Raptor return to duty earlier—ensuring at least one jet is flying.
On May 4, Lt. Col. Philip Johnson, a functional-check-flight pilot assigned to the 514th Flight Test Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, flew a test flight of the F-22.
“They did a great job on the airplane,” he said in the press release. “There were some minor maintenance notes found during the sortie, but those will be handled by maintenance. It’s good to go back to operational flying.”
The return of the F-22 to operational status is one of many minor miracles military aircraft maintainers accomplish on a regular basis. Air Force maintainers restored an A-10 “Warthog” four years after belly-landing in Michigan, while Navy sailors once brought back an EA-18G Growler that had been considered beyond repair five years after suffering a mid-air collision.
“Five months ago it had no struts, no wings, no flight controls, no hydraulics, no stabilizers,” Fitch said in December 2021. “Seeing the progress and doing something out of the ordinary has been really rewarding. … It’s going to be very satisfying when it flies.”