F-22 Raptor Badly Damaged After Belly Landing Flies Again
F-22A Raptor 07-4146 is finally back in the air again after a five-year restoration period that followed a mishap belly landing.
An F-22 Raptor stealth fighter that was seriously damaged in 2018 after it skidded down the runway on its belly at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, has returned to operational status. This marks the end of an elongated five-year period of restoration on the aircraft. The Air Force had previously hoped to have the F-22 flying again in Spring 2022.
Confirmation that the Raptor, which has the serial number 07-4146, is flying once again came recently after the Department of Defense released a series of photos showing the aircraft completing a final series of tests in April and May of this year. The aircraft, which is attached to the 90th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Fighter Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, returned to the operational fleet on May 4.
The Raptor in question skidded down the runway in April 2018 during a graduation exercise for the U.S. Navy's TOPGUN fighter weapons school training program at Naval Air Station Fallon.
One of four jets from the 90th Fighter Squadron supporting the graduation, the Air Force concluded that the incident involving 07-4146 was caused in part by incorrect takeoff and landing data as well as the difference in altitude at Fallon compared to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. These factors, plus the fact that the pilot had retracted the aircraft's landing gear sooner than it should have been during takeoff, meant that there was insufficient lift to get the Raptor airborne – causing it to come back down on the runway without its gear deployed.
In the various images above and below taken on May 4, we see the F-22 preparing for, and conducting, a functional check flight at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Functional check flights are typically performed after heavy maintenance periods in order to ensure that aircraft performs as needed. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Philip Johnson, a functional check flight pilot assigned to the 514th Flight Test Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, performed the check flight, after which 07-4146 returned to the operational fleet.
Alongside photos dated May 4, we also see a series of images dated variously in April showing other tests being performed on the aircraft in the lead-up to its functional check flight. On April 19, personnel attached to the 90th Air Maintenance Unit performed an afterburner test in order to ensure the correct transfer of fuel for the aircraft, as the image captions note.
Prior to this, personnel attached to the 90th Aircraft Maintenance Unit rebalanced the aircraft on April 4 in order to ensure it maintains the correct center of gravity.
Images of the restoration process in 2021 released by the Air Force, which you can see in our previous article here, show the aircraft in a very different condition. The innards of the Raptor can be seen exposed as the labor-intensive repair work was underway at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Yet even at that stage, however, a significant amount of work had already been undertaken on the aircraft. As we noted in that article, it took over a year of running models and simulations once the aircraft arrived from Fallon to even determine whether it could be salvaged and for plans for repair to be created.
As Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kevin Fitch, an F-22 crew chief from the 3rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit (AMU), indicated, after successful simulations the aircraft was placed in a hangar in January 2020 and put on stands. From there, a “complete strip" started to the bones of the fuselage. “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 noted. “Our active-duty guys didn’t start having a hand in the rebuild until June this year .”
This is not the first time a mishap like this occurred. In 2012, another F-22 skidded down the runway on its belly, this time at Tyndall AFB. The cost of repairing that jet was an estimated $35M, and took six years. The response to that ordeal likely informed this latest one.
Although the exact cost of restoring 07-4146 remains unknown, it has not come without its difficulties for the Air Force – particularly in terms of acquiring the right parts for an aircraft that is long out of production. Restoring the aircraft is also significant in the wider context of the service’s F-22 small fleet of around 180 airframes, of which only about 125 are actually combat capable.
Indeed, the total number of F-22s is only set to decrease in the near future. According to the service’s 2024 Fiscal Year budget request, the Air Force wants to divest 32 Block 20 F-22A Raptor stealth fighters (which are currently tasked with training and other non-combat duties). This would bring the total size of the F-22 fleet down from 183 to 151 aircraft.
Ultimately, the Air Force is looking to replace its F-22s with a new sixth-generation stealth combat jet being developed under the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program. The service is currently looking to procure 200 Next-Generation Air Dominance stealth combat jets, which will cost ‘hundreds of millions’ of dollars each, according to officials. Although the total production figure could, and likely will, change.
Despite these plans, the F-22 remains a 'centerpiece' aircraft within the USAF's inventory and has seen continued upgrades in recent years. F-22s have proved instrumental in shooting down the various objects identified flying above U.S. and Canadian airspace since February – the latest of which involved the interception of a “spherical object” off Hawaii at the end of April. In terms of recent technology upgrades, F-22s have been spotted flying with stealthy underwing pods as of late, and are even being used to test NGAD capabilities (and will also receive technology from the program). In addition to being able to fire AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles and AIM-120D Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), F-22s are expected to be one of, if not the first aircraft, to be armed with the future AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, or JATM.
Seeing 07-4146 in flight once more is certainly a testament to the hard work of the Air Force personnel and their contractor counterparts in making this a reality. This is especially commendable given the condition of the aircraft after its belly landing. Above all else, it is just another reminder of just how far the USAF will go to keep its small fleet of operationally relevant F-22s intact.
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