Why the Air Force knowingly left F-22s in the hurricane's path - We Are The Mighty
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Why the Air Force knowingly left F-22s in the hurricane’s path

When Hurricane Michael hit Florida as a Category 4 storm, it was a historical record — and it just happened to land a direct hit on a major U.S. Air Force base, Tyndall. Unfortunately for American warfighters and taxpayers, some of the Air Force’s most-needed and most-expensive assets were stuck in hangars damaged by the storm, leading to losses that might total hundreds of millions of dollars.

So, why did the Air Force leave these highly mobile and expensive assets in the path of a predictable, easily-tracked storm?


Why the Air Force knowingly left F-22s in the hurricane’s path

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from the 95th Fighter Squadron retracts its landing gear during takeoff at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., June 14, 2018.

(U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Isaiah J. Soliz)

Well, it’s not always as simple as people like to imagine — and commanders had to deal with a series of huge issues when the storm came barreling towards them. The numerous aircraft on base (including 55 F-22s) in their care was just one of many immediate problems.

F-22s are prized assets, but they can’t always fly. Pick your metaphor, whether it’s racehorses, racecars, boxers, or what-have-you, these are complex assets that require multiple maintenance hours for every single hour of flight. F-22’s have a readiness rate around 50 percent. You read it right — only about half of our F-22s can fly, fight, and win at any given moment.

So, while Tyndall hasn’t released their exact maintenance numbers at the time the storm was first projected to hit the base, it’s unlikely that even 30 of them were able to fly away at that moment. And the commanders had to look at the full picture — not just at their fifth-generation fighters.

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor from the 95th Fighter Squadron retracts its landing gear during takeoff at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., June 14, 2018.

They couldn’t know exactly how strong the storm would be when it hit them, but they could clearly see it was a hurricane — and a big one. The hangars and barracks on base simply weren’t up to the task of safely housing airmen during a category-3 or -4 hurricane. Michael hit the base as a category 4, and there wasn’t a single housing structure on base that completely survived the storm. The damage was so severe that the base might be a complete loss.

Yeah. A complete loss. As in, the Air Force might shut down the base and sell off the land, though leadership has said they’re “optimistic” that it will be worth rebuilding.

So, yes, the Air Force needed to get as many F-22s flight-worthy and out as possible, but they also needed to evacuate their airmen, protect other aircraft, and get everything secured before the storm hit. That includes the massive amounts of classified materials on a base like Tyndall.

And so they juggled — and the F-22s were only one of the balls in the air.

Why the Air Force knowingly left F-22s in the hurricane’s path

An F-22 Raptor from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., lands at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio for safe haven, Oct. 9, 2018. The F-22 is one of several planes taking safe haven at Wright-Patterson AFB as Hurricane Michael threatens their home station.

(U.S. Air Force Wesley Farnsworth)

The F-22s that were already flyaway-ready flew away, and parts were scavenged from some aircraft to get the others airborne. Anything that could be quickly bolted together was. That got somewhere between 37 and 52 of the 55 aircraft out.

That’s between 67 and 95 percent of the aircraft flown safely away — remember, the aircraft’s general readiness rate is 50 percent. That’s not failure, that’s a logistical and maintenance miracle.

But why didn’t they drive the other aircraft out? Or load them into C-5s with their wings removed?

Why the Air Force knowingly left F-22s in the hurricane’s path

U.S. Air Force maintenance Airmen from the 325th Maintenance Group prepare to marshal a 95th Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor toward the taxiway at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., June 14, 2018.

(U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Isaiah J. Soliz)

Well, taking the wings off of an airplane is actually a really difficult, time-consuming procedure and every minute that ticked by increased the difficulty of getting pilots and maintainers out ahead of the storm. Not to mention that removing the wings is guaranteed to damage the aircraft to some degree. Then, the plane needed to be loaded onto a C-5, risking that plane and crew should anything go wrong.

All of this would be done just to protect the aircraft from possible damages suffered in a storm. After all, it wasn’t guaranteed that Michael would break through the hangars.

But maybe you could throw a tarp over the plane, load it onto a truck, and drive it out?

Well, that would require a massive convoy with specialty trucks that would take up at least three lanes of a highway (usually four) at the exact same time that millions of people are trying to use the same roads to get to safety. F-22s are 44.5 feet wide, and most highway lanes are standardized at 12 feet wide.

That means protecting the planes would’ve risked the lives of Americans. You know, the exact same Americans that the planes are designed, purchased, maintained, and piloted to protect.

So, the commanders, likely unhappy with their options, got the remaining, unflyable weapons loaded into hangars and sent the rest of their personnel away.

Why the Air Force knowingly left F-22s in the hurricane’s path

A U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor pilot with the 95th Fighter Squadron performs a preflight inspection prior to night flying operations at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., June 11, 2018.

(U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Isaiah J. Soliz)

Zero Tyndall personnel were killed in the storm — and only 93 had to ride out the storm on base. The bulk of the F-22s and other aircraft were saved without damage — and that’s in a storm that damaged nearly every structure on the base, completely destroying some of them. Remember, this was a storm that removed some entire towns from the earth.

As for the damaged F-22s, initial reports from the base indicate that the damage to the airframes might not be severe. The leaders “assumed risk” by trusting the hangars, and it looks like the gamble worked.

So, sure, the military should take a look at what could have been done better. Maybe F-22s in need of maintenance should be flown to other bases during hurricane season in order to prevent a rush evacuation. Maybe we can increase investment in structures to deal with strengthening storms and rising seas, an initiative for which the Navy has requested money.

But we can’t place all the onus on base and wing commanders. Their job is to retain as much of their warfighting power as possible, and weathering such a big storm with all of their personnel and the bulk of their assets isn’t failure, it’s an accomplishment.

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