Article and Photos By Eric Hehs
Anchorage locals are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the current weather, wait an hour.” Within that hour, the weather can change from glaring sunlight to blinding snow, making forecasts in Alaska’s largest city more entertaining than useful. While such unpredictability amuses the locals, it can complicate operations for the F-22 Raptors at nearby Elmendorf AFB.
“The weather here makes for some challenging flying,” says Lt. Col. Chris Niemi, director of operations for the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf, the first F-22 Raptor squadron at the base. “The weather is more difficult to predict here than in any other place I have been before. We can take off in beautiful weather and return to a snowstorm with visibility of a mile or less.” When pilots encounter drastic weather changes between takeoff and landing, they might not have enough fuel to divert to other landing strips. “The runways in Alaska are spread far apart,” explains Niemi. “The closest divert base, besides Anchorage International Airport, is Eielson—250 miles away. Weather conditions, then, demand a higher level of piloting skills.”
The 90th FS is one of three fighter squadrons that fall under the 3rd Wing at Elmendorf. The 90th and the 525th operate F-22 Raptors. The 19th flies the F-15C Eagle. The wing is also home to the 517th Airlift Squadron, which operates the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-12 Huron, and the 962nd Airborne Air Control Squadron, which operates the E-3B Sentry airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, aircraft.
The 90th, known as the Pair-o-Dice squadron, received its first F-22s in spring 2007. The unit deployed five F-22s to Guam in July 2008 and reached initial operating capability, or IOC, status in September. The second F-22 squadron at Elmendorf, the 525th FS, known as the Bulldogs, was still taking delivery of F-22s in October 2008 when Code One visited the base. The squadron is expected to have its full complement of F-22s in 2009.
The 3rd Wing is also home to the 477th Fighter Group, Air Force Reserve Command’s first F-22 Raptor unit. The 477th was reactivated in October 2007 as an associate unit at the base. The group provides a combat-ready force of approximately 425 Air Reserve technicians, traditional Reservists, and civil servants assigned to operations, maintenance, medical, and mission support units. Reserve pilots, who fall under the 302nd Fighter Squadron, integrate with their active duty counterparts in both the 90th and 525th fighter squadrons.
“Last year was our first winter to operate the F-22 in Alaska,” notes CMSgt. William Holm, the aircraft maintenance unit superintendent for the 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit. “During the coldest days of that first winter, we hosted a lot of visitors.”
While some of those visitors expected the weather to cause a lot of problems for the Raptors, only minor issues arose. “A few computers and boxes on the fighter didn’t start up as quickly as we wanted,” continues Holm. “Also the alcohol/water mixture we use to clean the F-22 canopy froze at very low temperatures. We didn’t expect that.”
The low-observable coatings challenge maintainers because the technology is new to most of them. But they are learning to work with the coatings. “Maintaining coatings requires a different mindset,” explains Holm. “They are not just paint. They are another system on the aircraft and have to be treated as such.” The aviation-grade sand used to provide traction on icy runways can affect the coatings. “We clean the jets after every flight to ¬thoroughly inspect the coatings,” Holm continues. “That activity takes additional time. The F-22 isn’t dainty or oversensitive—it’s just different. And we have to use different procedures to maintain it.”
The F-22 offsets these additional requirements with a much more capable laptop-based maintenance system. “Overall, the F-22 is very maintainable,” Holm says. “It represents an advance in self-diagnostic capabilities.” The F-15C employs an aircraft status panel that shows a little white ball popping up to indicate which line replaceable unit is bad. The F-15E uses fault codes to provide a little more information on what might need attention. “The F-22 generates fault reporting codes that tend to be real accurate,” offers Holm. “While the Strike Eagle fault codes got us in the ballpark, the fault reporting codes on the F-22 tell us exactly what is wrong.
“We have also done away with phase inspections with the F-22,” Holm adds. “The F-15 requires phase inspections every 200 flying hours. That frequency demands planning because the detailed inspections require an airplane to be down for a week or longer. Losing too many aircraft to phase inspections can impact a flying schedule.
“The F-22 has a completely different inspection concept,” Holm continues. “First, it’s every 900 hours. Second, the inspections are not as complex as the phase inspections for the F-15.”
Routine maintenance on the F-22 and every other aircraft is just subject to the environment of Alaska. Changing a tire at 15 degrees Fahrenheit is a little more difficult than changing a tire at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And those 15-degree days represent the average for January—the coldest month in Anchorage. “Elmendorf is fairly dry most of the year, which may seem counterintuitive,” says Niemi as he looks out his office window to a line of F-22s parked on a ramp covered in three inches of snow. The snowfall is the third of the season—and it’s only mid October.
“The airplanes do best when we can park them in our flow-through shelters to prevent the snow from accumulating on them,” Niemi continues. The flow-through shelters are heated hangars with doors on two facing sides. The 90th has only eight of these shelters for its twenty F-22s, so the unit always has aircraft parked in the weather.
“Snow doesn’t present a particular problem,” Niemi explains. “It affects our schedule more than anything else because de-icing the airplane requires more time. We have to clear the wings and flight control surfaces of any ice before we take off. On the plus side, the engines prefer the cold dense air. Jet engines put out more thrust and wings are more efficient in this climate.”
When the Air Force canceled one of the F-22 squadrons at Langley AFB, Virginia, deliveries to Elmendorf were accelerated. So Elmendorf is playing catch-up in terms of infrastructure. Several construction projects are planned, including additional flow-through shelters. The 525th operates from a temporary location but will eventually move to the other side of the runway from the 90th.
Elmendorf is one of six bases operating the F-22. Flight testing takes place at Edwards AFB, California. Operational tactics development and Weapons School training occur at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Pilots and maintenance personnel are trained at Tyndall AFB, Florida. Raptors have been assigned to operational squadrons at the remaining three bases—Langley; Elmendorf; and Holloman AFB, New Mexico. (Hickam AFB, Hawaii, will be the fourth operational base. F-22s are scheduled to arrive there beginning in 2010.) The two F-22 squadronCommand pilots are attached to the 90th Fighter Squadron,” notes Niemi. “They may wear 302nd Fighter Squadron patches, but they are more or less the same as any other F-22 pilot on the base. The Reserve is doing a great job at hiring exceptionally qualified people, particularly pilots with experience flying F-22s on active duty. We are making the most of that experience.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum, both F-22 squadrons at Elmendorf are about to receive two of the first four lieutenants to graduate from pilot training at Tyndall. These graduates will be the most junior pilots to step into an F-22 cockpit.
The new pilots will go through a mission qualification program, which supplements the training they received at Tyndall. The training is specific to the types of missions flown at Elmendorf and to the arctic environment, which is quite different from the environment in Florida.
“The learning curve for a new pilot coming to an operational unit is not harder or easier for an F-22 compared with an F-15,” Niemi notes. “It is just different.” Some in the US Air Force were initially concerned that F-22 tactics would be harder for an inexperienced fighter pilot to learn. According to Niemi, the instructors at Tyndall report otherwise. “Although new pilots may not have the experience or airmanship,” he says, “they pick up the tactics associated with the F-22 as readily as they pick up the tactics associated with the F-15.
“We fly a lot of detached mutual support in the F-22,” Niemi continues. “That is, we don’t fly in visual formations like they do in the F-15. We fly far apart. Raptor pilots rely on sensors and other equipment in the aircraft to determine their wingman’s position. Detached mutual support is a foreign concept for F-15 pilots because they are used to looking out their windows to see their wingmen. F-15 pilots have to unlearn that habit when they transition to the F-22. Pilots trained in the F-22 understand the concept from the beginning.”
Detached mutual support is one of many operational concepts unique to the F-22. As Raptor squadrons train with units that fly other fighters, this concept and the unique qualities and advantages of a fifth-generation fighter become clearer. “A lot of people in the Air Force don’t know what an F-22 can do,” explains Niemi, one of eight USAF pilots to fly the F-22 during its initial operational test and evaluation phase at Edwards AFB, California. “They have seen photos and videos of the airplane, but they have never operated with it in the same exercise.”
The biggest misconception? “Some roles for the airplane are not well understood,” Niemi answers. “The airplane can also do many things no one knows about. We focus our efforts on capabilities that tend to be classified, so we don’t talk about those. This lack of accurate information leads to some erroneous conclusions.”
According to Niemi, close air support falls into the misconception category, at least for now. “The Raptor can perform CAS because it can carry JDAMs,” he says. “We type in coordinates, and the bombs fall on target. But fighters that carry targeting pods are more suited for CAS. Our sensors are optimized for air-to-air targets. However, that situation will change as our air-to-ground modes grow and mature.
“The F-22 is most capable in a high-threat environment,” Niemi continues. “For example, the Raptor is very effective against advanced air-to-air platforms, such as the latest Russian fighters. In addition, it can shoot down the threats, support other fighters, and drop bombs in that environment. Signature, speed, and avionics make the F-22 survivable in threat environments in which an F-15 simply can’t survive. Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have those advanced threats. But other countries the United States and its allies could be facing in fifteen or twenty years may have them.”
Preparing for those potential threats forms the foundation of regular large-force exercises that take place in Alaska. Fighter units from around the world come to Alaska to take advantage of the expansive airspace and extensive ranges. Pacific Air Forces hosts its own Red Flag exercises here three times a year. Red Flag officially transitioned from Cope Thunder Exercises in 2006. Two of the three Red Flags are usually open to international air forces. Alaska also plays host to Northern Edge exercises once a year. Northern Edge concentrates on joint multiservice employment and is limited to US forces.
Both Red Flag and Northern Edge last two weeks and are run by the 353rd Combat Training Squadron at Eielson AFB. Lt. Col. Greg Franklin is the detachment commander for the 353rd CTS at Elmendorf. “Bringing Red Flag to Alaska had a lot to do with the available airspace here and the threat capabilities we offer,” Franklin explains. “The Alaskan ranges have a large array of simulated surface-to-air threats. They have been in place for a while under Cope Thunder exercises, but we have built on them to make them even more challenging.”
A typical Red Flag Alaska involves eight to ten squadrons with a variety of aircraft. Three fighter squadrons normally operate from Eielson and two from Elmendorf. Other participants include an airlift squadron and an E-3 AWACS unit both flying from Elmendorf and a bomber squadron and various aerial refueling units flying from Eielson. Personnel can total anywhere from 1,500 to 1,700. “The exercises are great for the local economies,” notes Franklin.
“Many visiting units have never seen the Raptor,” adds Niemi. “The 80th Fighter Squadron is here from Korea for Red Flag this week. They have never had the opportunity to fly with an F-22. They arrive with some of those mis¬conceptions I mentioned. Here, we can discuss some of the classified capabilities. By the end of the two-week exercise, they walk away with a good sense of what an F-22 can do and how we can exploit our unique advantages if we ever go to war together.”
The capabilities of the F-22 are changing the dynamics of these exercises across the board. “The capabilities of an air-to-air configured Raptor are phenomenal,” says Franklin, himself a former Aggressor pilot. “The situational awareness and the ability to pass this awareness to others change the fight. Integrating that increased awareness into a force package is something we are practicing here at Red Flag.”
While this Red Flag Alaska isn’t Capt. Jammie Jamieson’s first time at, it is her first time to fly the F-22 in the exercise. “I’m flying as a wingman in this Red Flag,” she explains, “but I have flown in Red Flag before as an F-15 pilot in the 12th and 19th Fighter Squadrons here at Elmendorf.” Jamieson has accumulated just under 700 hours in the F-15C and just over 100 hours in the F-22. She flies with the newest F-22 squadron at Elmendorf, the 525th.
“A lot of the flying in the F-22 is similar to the F-15 in Red Flag since the Red Flag scenarios are the same for both aircraft,” she says. “The F-22 in this Red Flag is tasked for defensive counterair role, surface attack, and offensive counterair escort.”
These roles are similar to those performed by the F-15C. One difference is the Eagle doesn’t drop bombs. But the biggest difference flying an F-22 is performance. “We spend more time at higher altitudes,” says Jamieson. “The stealth capability of the F-22 is also a big advantage. We can get into the visual arena undetected because the adversaries are generally looking at the big radar returns from fourth-generation aircraft on their displays. We can see them, but they can’t see us.”
The primary objective of the exercise is to get pilots from one unit to interact with pilots from other units. Together they constitute a strike package that includes surveillance aircraft, bombers, and escorts. They face surface-to-air threats as well as Red Air threats, which are provided by the Aggressors of the 18th Fighter Squadron from Eielson.
“The exercise attempts to simulate the fog and friction of a real-world air war,” Jamieson explains. During the exercise, pilots have to deconflict from other airplanes, avert flying into each other, and avoid running out of gas. They can also encounter weather. These conditions are much different from a controlled two-versus-four engagement practiced in regular training. The exercise can include forty or fifty airplanes airborne at the same time. “When the F-22 integrates with fourth-generation fighters in a composite force, we raise everyone’s capabilities,” continues Jamieson. “We can go in undetected and identify targets, which allows the F-15s to make better use of their firepower. We take advantage of our ¬sensors and pass that information to other Blue forces, allowing them to execute proven air-to-air and air-to-surface tactics to overwhelm the adversaries.
“We are still learning new things about employing the F-22,” Jamieson sums up. “In the context of exercises such as Red Flag Alaska, we hope to teach flight leads and mission commanders how to make the most of our capabilities.”
Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.
Courtesy, Code One, An Airpower Magazine by Lockheed Martin.