Not Even an F-22 Can Withstand the Forces of Nature

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: Hurricane Michael in 2018 is but one example of how the weather can harm expensive military equipment.

The F-22 Raptor may be the most elusive fighter ever built. It has a radar-cross section the size of a marble, and if it gets into trouble, it can rocket away traveling up to two-and-a-half times the speed of sound—so fast that the friction from the air would melt its radar-absorbent coatings right off its airframe. But this October, the Air Force discovered that a Raptor with its wings clipped can’t evade the force of nature.

Tyndall Air Force Base, located on a coastal peninsula across from Panama City, Florida, is a sprawling twenty-nine thousand-acre complex which at the beginning of October housed fifty-five F-22 Raptors of the 325th Fighter Wing—nearly a third of all F-22s built, making it the primary center for Raptor pilot training. It also houses QF-16 jet fighter drones used for Full-Scale Aerial Target tests, T-38 supersonic jet trainers and Mitsubishi Mu-2 twin-engine utility planes used to train AWACS crews in airborne-early warning skills.

On October 9, 2018, Hurricane Michael was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane, with winds measuring between 130 to 150 miles per hour and a storm surge as high as fourteen feet (Tyndall is about twelve feet above sea level). The Air Force had just a few days to evacuate.

Thirty-three Raptors were flown to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Fortunately, all of the four thousand active-duty personnel at the base and their families were evacuated before the storm hit, save for a small skeleton crew.

That left as many as twenty-two of the stealth fighters—which cost roughly $150 million each, or more than twice that if you factor in R&D costs—in non-flyable condition tucked away in hangars to weather Hurricane Michael. Tough mechanics had reportedly managed to restore several F-22s in time to be flown away, but one Raptor reportedly experienced a malfunction during takeoff, and others were missing parts as they had been cannibalized to keep other aircraft operational.

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