Incredible Images Of A Stripped-Down F-22 Raptor Being Rebuilt After A Belly Landing

The F-22 is set to return to service in early 2022, nearly four years after a botched takeoff.

byJoseph TrevithickDec 21, 2021 6:55 PM
Incredible Images Of A Stripped-Down F-22 Raptor Being Rebuilt After A Belly Landing
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The U.S. Air Force says it is hopefully just months away from completing what will be a nearly four-year-long effort to return a seriously damaged F-22 Raptor stealth fighter to service. In highlighting this intensive repair effort, and the airmen behind it, the service has offered a look at the innards of a Raptor unlike any we have seen in the past.

The public affairs office at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER, in Alaska released the new details about the work that has gone into restoring 07-4146 on Dec. 21, 2021. This base is home to the 3rd Wing. This Raptor, which has the serial number 07-4146, went skidding along the runway on its belly at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada after a botched takeoff attempt in April 2018. It was one of four jets from the 3rd Fighter Wing's 90th Fighter Squadron that had deployed to Fallon to support a graduation exercise for the U.S. Navy's famous Topgun fighter pilot training program.

A low-quality picture of 07-4146 on its belly at Fallon in 2018., Anonymous contributor

The Air Force determined that the cause of the accident was incorrect takeoff and landing data based on the runway length at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, as well as the altitude at which that facility lies, which is different from that at Fallon. So, when the pilot at the controls of 07-4146, who had also retracted the aircraft's landing gear sooner than they should have, attempted to get airborne, there was insufficient lift and the jet came right back down on the runway. The pilot was thankfully unharmed in the incident.

How much it will ultimately cost the Air Force to get this F-22 back in service is unknown, but The War Zone has already reached out for more information about the repair bill. In 2017, the service disclosed that it would approximately $25 million to return a different Raptor that had been kept in flyable storage to service as a test jet. That aircraft was not severely damaged like 07-4146, but that cost did include the price of upgrading it from an older standard to a more up-to-date configuration.

Regardless, it is clear that the damage to 07-4146 was extensive. It took a month for a team of Air Force personnel who had traveled to Fallon to safely dismantle the Raptor so that it could be transported back to its home base in Alaska via 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, an F-22 crew chief from the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU), who has been involved in the entire repair process, said. “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.”

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It would take more than a year of running models and simulations to determine whether or not the aircraft was salvageable and devise a plan for repairing it.

“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 has been involved in 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."

“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,” Fitch added. “Our active-duty guys didn’t start having a hand in the rebuild until June this year.”

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Repairing 07-4146, really more of a complete refurbishment of the aircraft from how the Air Force has described it, is made all the more complicated by the fact that the F-22 is long out of production and the Air Force's total fleet of these jets is relatively small. At present, there are only around 186 Raptors in service, of which some 125 are assigned to combat-coded units. The rest are set aside for training and test and evaluation purposes or are sidelined due to other 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 recovered from the jet after the accident or otherwise retained during the repair process, including things as small as fasteners made to extremely high tolerances that are important for keeping the aircraft's radar cross-section as small as possible, have also gone back into the aircraft. 

An Air Force maintainer cleans fasteners as part of the rebuilding of 07-4146., USAF

“Right now the biggest challenge is acquiring parts because the F-22 isn’t manufactured anymore,” Fitch explained. The Raptor being out of production is just one part of the issue. After all this time, subcontractors who made certain components may no longer even be in existence and the institutional knowledge of how to build them may have been lost along the way, requiring costly re-engineering.

The Air Force's goal now is to get the jet back in service, at least technically, 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 added.

Canning, a colloquial term for cannibalizing parts from other aircraft, is a common practice across the Air Force, especially for low-density, high-demand types like the F-22. In addition, Raptors are notoriously maintenance intensive and the fleet's readiness rate, on average, is typically around 50 percent. So, 3rd Wing undoubtedly has other jets sidelined that can give up parts to help get 07-4146 back on the flightline.

F-22s on the ramp in the snow at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in 2013., USAF

The small size of the Air Force's fleet of F-22s, which remains one of its most advanced stealth fighters, is a key reason for expending the time and money to return jets like 07-4146 to service, if at all possible. The decision to dramatically curtail Raptor orders in 2009 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has turned out to have been immensely short-sighted as competition with China and Russia has grown, raising an increased specter of potential high-end conflicts. Just this year, the Air Force sent roughly a fifth of its combat-coded F-22s to Guam for an exercise that was clearly meant to, at least in part, send signals to the Chinese. The service, together with Lockheed Martin, continues to upgrade the Raptors, as well, including giving them the ability to fire AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles and AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and additional communications capabilities.

Of course, all of this is set to become increasingly moot as the Air Force formalizes its schedule for retiring its F-22s in favor of a new manned stealth fighter being developed under its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. The service confirmed earlier this year that the Raptor does not factor into its current long-term force structure plans.

In the meantime, keeping as many F-22s as possible operational remains important to the Air Force. 

“It’s really important we get this jet back in flight,” Fitch said. “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.”

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kevin Fitch, at left, and Staff Sgt. Ethan Rentz, at right, F-22 crew chiefs from the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit who have been involved in the rebuilding of 07-4146., USAF

If everything goes to plan, 07-4146 should be back flying with 3rd Wing by the end of next Spring.

 Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com

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