NELLIS AFB, Nev. --- F-22 Raptor and F-35A Lightning II pilots may take the reins of their respective aircraft; however, it takes preparation from outside the cockpit to get them where they need to go undetected.
Low observable technology, according to Senior Airman Joshua Moon, a 192nd Fighter Wing LO aircraft structures technician, enhances the multi-role fighter’s stealth capability an important asset in any contingency and at U.S. Air Force training exercises such as Red Flag 17-1.
“If the pilot’s seen by radar, he can be shot down,” Moon said. “If he isn’t, he can do his mission, go behind enemy lines, and they’ll never even know he was there until it’s too late. Without us, he’s going to get spotted, or shot down, so lives are at risk when it comes to our job.”
Pilots, however, aren’t the only ones who rely on technicians like Moon to repair LO aircraft structures. Before a maintainer can fix certain parts of a fifth-generation aircraft, LO must prepare the jet.
“When other people have problems with a jet, it’s going to affect LO,” Moon said, as he pointed to an F-22 in a maintenance hangar. “Right now, something is wrong with a light panel on that jet. Since maintenance needs to get into that panel, we have to pick the radar absorbent material off and clean all the fasteners out so they can fix the light. Once the light is fixed we will re-bind the coating and material again to make it 100 percent ready.”
While fixing the light panel was unexpected – it kept the LO team working through the weekend – the technicians did prepare themselves for what Red Flag could entail.
“We knew they were going to fly the hell out of the jets because this is a large-scale exercise,” Moon said. “When the pilot flies he’ll bank real hard sometimes, which can tear or rip the radar absorbent material. If there are a lot of damages, the aircraft is easier to detect, so we try to keep those damages to a minimum to where you can’t see it on radar.”
For Tech. Sgt. William, the 1st Operations Support Squadron NCO in charge of intelligence analysis, preparation and attention to detail in the LO technicians’ field directly affects what intelligence analysts provide to pilots during mission briefings.
“I like to think of it like a triangle between intelligence, maintenance and the pilots,” William said. “We can give them very good information for what they’re going into, but if their jet isn’t performing the way they expect it to, them knowing that information doesn’t necessarily do them any good.”
For Moon, pressure doesn’t only come from enabling others to do their jobs within the fifth-generation triangle, but from the realistic threats Red Flag presents.
“An exercise like this provides some of the most realistic training our pilots are going to get, so they really need to be able to depend on that jet performing the way they expect it to, so that they can get those realistic lessons learned,” William said. “The way their jet responds in this environment is meant to be the same it would perform in real combat.”
Along with combat training, the stealth aircraft are also being tested by radar daily.
“At Red Flag, they’re testing our jets by hitting them with radar over the range, so that’s a lot of pressure for us. It’s really important that those jets come back undetected,” said Moon, explaining that if the aircraft came back detected, LO would have to find and fix the issues, which he and his team has worked around-the-clock to prevent.
“This is training, so lives aren’t actually at risk, but we’re here for a reason,” said Moon of participating in the realistic combat training exercise. “We may be working through the weekend here, but it’s our job and we’re blessed to have it. If we can keep up with the fast pace here, we can keep up anywhere.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: While much has been written about the theoretical problems and challenges on maintaining the F-22, this story for the first time reveals specific details that illustrate the issue.
We have emphasized the salient points in bold typeface.
Needing a week-end to replace a light panel, for example, reveals a very high level of maintenance complexity, while the fact that hard banking in flight can cause the radar-absorbent material to “tear or rip” off is probably made public for the first time.
One wonders how many combat sorties an F-22 would be able to fly before being grounded for maintenance, and by extension the same question can be asked about the F-35, Lockheed’s other “stealth” fighter.)