The Air Force continues to assess the potential damage to multiple F-22 Raptor fighter jets inflicted last week by Hurricane Michael at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida.
It remains to be seen exactly how many aircraft were impacted and the extent of the damage, Air Force officials said Oct. 14. Air Force leadership declined to provide an assessment of the damage while speaking to reporters outside Tyndall.
Gen. David Goldfein, service chief of staff, said an “initial visual inspection” had been conducted, but he was hesitant to give any further information “until you can actually power on the aircraft and look at the systems and the subsystems and the components.”
“These are very sophisticated aircraft,” he added, according to a video of the news briefing provided by the Defense Department. “As soon as we have that [information], we’ll get it available to you.”
Goldfein, who was joined at the press conference by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth O. Wright, noted that Tyndall Air Force Base had about 48 hours to respond to the swelling storm as it increased in severity from a tropical storm to a category 4 hurricane. He lauded base commander Col. Brian Laidlaw for efforts to get all personnel off base before the storm made landfall in the evening of Oct. 10.
The Air Force did not respond to a request for the number of F-22s stationed at Tyndall or how many were on base at the time of Hurricane Michael as of press time for Defense Daily on Monday.
The question remains as to why those impacted aircraft were not moved prior to the storm. Multiple reports state that at least some were down for maintenance and would be difficult to transport.
Douglas Royce, an aviation expert at Forecast International, a marketing and analysis firm in Newtown, Connecticut, noted that the Raptor, which possesses multiple lines of classified code and is one of the Air Force’s most complex aircraft, would prove difficult to move in any situation.
“There may be regulations regarding how you move aircraft that’s surrounded by that level of secrecy,” he said, adding, “You can’t just put them on a truck and drive them to the Best Western.”
It’s too early to say how badly the damage could impact the Air Force’s budget for repairs or their readiness efforts, he noted. The fact that there are less than 200 in operation means there will likely be some impact, and any damage will likely cost millions of dollars, he added.
“We could be looking at very minor damage, or … some aircraft might have minor, [and] some aircraft might be totaled,” he said.
The Air Force will also have to reassess how it protects its fleets against weather events, he noted. “Extreme weather conditions seem to be a new threat that they have to look at,” he said.
Goldfein noted at the Sunday press briefing said that the service’s capability to defend the nation was not impacted by the storm. The F-22s that were transportable were moved to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and have maintenance available if needed, he said, adding, “now we’re focused on the airmen and their families.” Tyndall-based Raptors were also flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, for safe haven, according to the Defense Department.
The Pentagon has placed a priority on improving the readiness levels of several fighter fleets, including the F-22s, which are reported to have among the lowest levels of readiness among all of the department’s fighters.
Royce said the F-22 should be viewed in a separate category from overall fighter readiness levels, as it is “a much more complex aircraft … that requires a higher level of maintenance.”
The F-22, a joint program between Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA], first entered service in 2005. The fiscal year 2009 budget – the last year of full-rate procurement — listed a flyaway unit cost of $150.4 million for 24 Raptors. Earlier production aircraft were more expensive, Royce noted. Currently 183 F-22s are in service.