Air Force pilots prepare ahead of Va. Beach air show
By KARA DRISCOLL | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: May 22, 2014
Capt. John Cummings got out of the cockpit of the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force's top fighter jet, with ease and comfort at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton.
The captain stood confidently as Col. Kevin Huyck, commander of the First Fighter Wing, boasted about the high-performance aircraft and the elite group of pilots who fly it.
After almost two years of controversy surrounding the Raptor's oxygen system, the Langley-based First Fighter Wing team is eager to show Americans, as well as enemies abroad, that its fleet of fighters is combat-ready and fully functioning.
"In a dogfight, the F-22 is unmatchable," Huyck said.
Cummings, commander of the F-22 demonstration team, practiced Wednesday morning in preparation for the air show at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront on May 31 and June 1. But the Raptor's capabilities extend much further than what attendees will see as the aircraft floats and spins above the Atlantic.
One-third of the Air Force's Raptors reside at Langley, where 1,400 airmen and civilians operate and maintain 45 of the jets. The F-22 goes twice as fast as the speed of sound - or 680 miles per second - and soars up to 60,000 feet. Its stealth and speed make it almost undetectable to other aircraft in its vicinity.
"You start looking at other threats and other countries and their fleets, and there's no way," Huyck said. "They have aging fleets. We have the newest and the big air dominance to maintain air superiority for our nation."
The First Fighter Wing worked to promote the fleet's capabilities following years of concern over the F-22's safety features. Two Virginia Air National Guard pilots assigned to Langley spoke out in 2012 about a defective oxygen system that left pilots suffering from hypoxia-like symptoms, including nausea and disorientation.
Master Sgt. Jason Kraemer, the demo team's lead technician, said he is "100 percent confident" in the Raptor.
Twenty of the Raptors at Langley were upgraded, adding an automatic backup oxygen system to help maintain pilots' breathing capabilities at the highest altitudes during an emergency. Base officials expect the rest of the fleet will be upgraded by mid-September.
Five of Langley's F-22s were installed with the emergency oxygen system and a software capability that uses long-range radar mapping to find targets and direct small bombs to enemies. The software, which will be installed on all the Raptors at Langley by next year, allows the plane to stay far away from possible threats.
"With this software capability, no target is safe," Huyck said.
Huyck said that while the militaries of other countries, such as Russia and China, have tried to compete with U.S. avionic advancements the Raptor's technology is years ahead.
Air show attendees won't see the Raptor drop bombs, but they can gawk as Cummings stops midflight, stalls the fighter jet and flies backwards.
Cummings prefers shows like Virginia Beach's to larger ones because of the hometown vibe.
"It's just a lot more personal," he said.
The Raptor demonstration team performs 20 air shows from March to November giving civilians a glimpse of the aviation tactics used in actual conflict.
"We're practicing every day and wearing the F-22s out and then rebuilding them," Huyck said. "If you're the enemy, you're dead. They don't even see when you're shooting at them."