July, 23

    F-22 flight training begins at Virginia base after years in limbo

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    The Air Force has started teaching student pilots to fly the F-22 Raptor fighter jet at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, the service said June 14.

    It’s a new start for the F-22 training enterprise after Hurricane Michael destroyed the mission’s sole home at Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base in 2018.

    “We want to get them in the mindset of what it’s like to be in a fighter squadron, what our mission means and why it’s important,” Capt. Spencer Bell, an instructor with the new 71st Fighter Squadron, said of students in a release. “We are forging the next generation.”

    Hurricane Michael — a Category 5 storm — slammed Tyndall with 160 mph winds and caused irreversible water damage and mold infestations that required the Air Force to demolish much of the base. F-22 pilots and maintainers relocated to Eglin AFB, about 90 miles west across the Florida Panhandle, to continue the training mission while the Air Force considered its next steps.

    The Air Force signed off on Langley, which already hosts two F-22 combat squadrons, as the permanent site of F-22 flight training in 2021.

    Tyndall’s fleet of Raptor jets began moving to Virginia in March. All 30 are expected to be in Virginia by September, Langley spokesperson Marcus Bullock said Friday.

    There, training will be managed by the recently renamed 71st Fighter Squadron, which previously flew the T-38 Talon trainer jet as adversaries in F-22 combat training. Its sister unit, the 71st Fighter Generation Squadron, will handle maintenance on the stealth jets.

    Student pilots arrive at the F-22 schoolhouse after spending time on basic maneuvers in two training aircraft at other bases. Once they graduate, they will head to their first operational units that fly the F-22 in combat.

    The first cohort of six budding F-22 pilots has already spent three months in classroom lessons and simulator sorties at Tyndall. Students will continue doing that in Florida until those facilities are built at Langley. That will take at least three more years to get up and running, the Air Force said in January.

    Now, the first class is working through six months of flight lessons at Langley to familiarize themselves with F-22 radars and weapons, basic fighter maneuvers, air combat tactics and more.

    “My first flight was mind-blowing,” said F-22 student pilot Capt. Chas Ballard in the release. “I could feel the immense amount of power that the machine had to give and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever flown before.”

    To support the unit, the Air Force is planning several construction projects for new facilities in the coming years. Two of those — a repair facility for the F-22′s stealth features, and a combined operations and maintenance hangar — are already underway.

    Airmen have argued that Langley is better-equipped to welcome F-22s than Eglin, where it shared space with the F-35 enterprise. Virginia’s congressional delegation pushed for the relocation as well.

    “While Joint Base Langley-Eustis currently has two F-22 squadrons, as well as supporting maintenance units, it was built for the beddown of three squadrons, thereby underutilizing the airspace and Air Force investment in ramp, hangar and operations support facilities,” the bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers said in 2019. “The East Coast mid-Atlantic training ranges provide an excellent opportunity to train with other fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft in the region.”

    Still, it’s unclear what the future holds for Langley’s newest flying squadron.

    The Air Force is asking Congress to let it retire 32 older F-22s that aren’t equipped for combat, so it can funnel those funds into cutting-edge technology like its Next-Generation Air Dominance fighter jet program. If approved, the service believes the divestment would save about $2.5 billion over five years.

    In the meantime, Tyndall is set to receive its own new mission — the F-35 Lightning II — starting in August.

    Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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