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Raptor's Delight.

F-22 program means more than just another new jet for the combined test force at Edwards Air Force Base

Ask pilots the difference between 26 and 60 degrees, and they might stick out a hand and say, "bout that much." But ask anyone in the F-22 Raptor Combined Test Force at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and the response comes quickly: "Night and day."

That's because people, mostly the engineers and pilots deeply invested in the initial testing of the first five aircraft over the high desert, are talking about something called angle of attack. But they also talk about supercruise, redundant avionics and a hundred other things that make the F-22 the "meanest, baddest bird on the planet." This and more fires the imagination, spirit and acumen of this team to reach new heights with this machine, which is expected by many of the plane's pundits to revolutionize air combat.

At this place where the sound barrier fell and the X-15 soared, the F-22 test force and the people engrained in making it run are turning heads. Mostly, they get respect for how they run their business -- professional and matter-of-factly, meeting defense acquisition goals and milestones -- and their ability to mesh government employees with contractors seamlessly and without headaches.

These flying scientists are seeing the F-22 evolve daily. With less than two years left in the initial testing phase, their expectations are being exceeded at almost every level.

Col. Chris Seat has been the director of the test force since July 2000. He's one of the "F-22 diplomats" with the systems program office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and those holding the purse strings on Capitol Hill. He's most closely tied to keeping his team moving in the same direction, which has been made easier by the meshing of a wealth of civilian contractors and federal employees.

"Everybody's interested in getting the F-22 flying, but everybody comes at it from a different angle," said Seat, who is also one of the Raptor test pilots. "It's a good combination here, but it does take some sensitivity."

Make no mistake, however, about the enthusiasm and vigor with which people approach their roles. Take, for instance, Capt. Amy Andersson, an F-22 airframe flight test engineer, who nearly jumps out of her chair when talking about the abilities of the plane, especially when explaining angle of attack.

Essentially, the F-22 is able to fly at slow speeds during combat and point its nose anywhere it needs to be pointed without the pilot losing control. That means a pilot can look at and shoot down almost any target he faces. That magic number -- the aircraft's angle of attack -- is about 60 degrees up or down. Andersson said the Raptor can do better, but that's "all she's able to talk about. The beauty of the F-22," she said, "is that it's controllable at these extremely low speeds, and the pilot can still point the nose wherever he likes."

In comparison, the nearly three-decades-old F-15 maxs out at about 24 degrees and the 24-year-old F-16 at about 26 degrees. Those 34 degrees of difference, in Andersson's eyes, mean a win for the F-22 pilot.

"It has amazed me," she said. "Sometimes, I just have to step back and go 'wow' because there are no other airplanes we have that can do that."

Lt. Col. Gary Plumb is another test pilot with the program and the commander of the 411th Test Squadron, which oversees much of the test force's administrative activity. Plumb, an F-16 driver and 19-year Air Force veteran, said he hasn't flown a smoother, more advanced aircraft, and he tells the engineers as much when he returns from a sortie.

"I tell them it flies as well as an F-16," he said, joking. "It's very smooth and natural to fly. You don't have to think a whole lot about where you want it to go. You can fly it with free abandon and not worry about getting into trouble."

Plumb said the F-22 is also faster than he expected. On a recent sortie, an F-15 was flying at full power, just past the speed of sound. "I had to throttle down to stay with him, but at one point I put it into full military power, and off I went."

Plumb, like Seat and others who fly the jet, provides "sqwaks," or reports, to the Raptor development team. "The engineers want to know what you saw while you were in the cockpit," he said. "They want the pilot's perspective. We rur down everything that day we fly and talk with the engineers.

Unfortunately, as with the development of any new weapon system, maintenance and other random events can sideline, or "slip," flights. This, above any other aspect, frustrates those who work on the program like Master Sgt. Russ Brown, who has nearly single-handedly scheduled F-22 activity for almost a year.

"There is so much technology involved with the F-22 that, typically, things go wrong. Human beings built the airplane. It's not perfect. We know that," he said. "But if the aircraft slips for any reason, that puts a lot of pressure on all of us."

Seat agreed with Brown's assessment of those setbacks. "The F-22 program is rather fluid. A lot of the programs here -- like the upgrade programs -- are more established, and a lot of people come from those programs. So, they are used to seeing schedules laid out weeks in advance, and that, for the most part, you execute those," Seat said. "But unfortunately, we have a lot of variables because there are things we just don't know."

Soon, the team transitions into work on the avionics package, one that blows away current technology and gives the F-22 its real edge in the sky. This includes integrating a number of systems like radar, friend-or-foe identification and others into one cohesive platform. So, instead of a pilot having to toggle three different systems and rely on his wingman to confirm a threat, the F-22 does much of that for him.

"It's a whole new mindset, a whole new approach to avionics," Plumb said. "As a pilot, I don't want to see something there and then have to make a decision whether or not a target is good. I want to have faith in the system. That's what we're testing now."

There is still a lot of work to be done, Seat said, and his team is pushing forward. "We only have until December 2002 to finish up this initial phase, and we still have a lot to do," he said. "Although it seems like a long ways away, I believe we'll be ready. But it'll be a challenge."

As work progresses, F-22 engineers, maintainers, schedulers, pilots and everyone involved in the program said they will continue to be amazed by what America's newest fighter is able to do. They are also quick to warn about staying ahead of both adversary and ally in the air superiority department.

"Americans, I don't think, will tolerate us operating at parity with other countries or fighters," Plumb said. "We have to dominate. That's just our nature. As an American fighter pilot, it's intolerable to me that there's someone who has better stuff than us."

Seat agreed. "The F-15 has done a great job up to this point. The problem is there are other aircraft and ground systems out there that can now take on the F-15. Without the F-22 in the future, we are just not going to be able to get access to an adversary's territory and have air dominance. That's the reason we need the F-22."

With the echoes of those who have tested and shaped so many military aircraft before them ringing in their ears, the F-22 team soars on.

"This is the future," Andersson concluded. "There aren't that many F-22s in the world. We want to have a lot more. We are on the cutting edge here, and it's really neat to see how far we can 'push the envelope.'"
COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Air Force, Air Force News Agency
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Tudor, Staff Sgt. Jason
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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