Airman 1st Class Lopez and Tech Sgt. Dickens are among the crews at Langley Air Force Base that keep the stealth fighter supplied with a lethal mix of bombs and missiles, plus a 20-millimeter multi-barrel cannon for close encounters.
Starting Tuesday, these crews began working around the clock to support F-22 pilots, who are conducting weapons proficiency training. About 40 munitions specialists from the 94th Aircraft Maintenance Unit are participating, and the up-tempo pace will continue through Thursday.
Officially dubbed "94th Banner Ops," it's a way for the munitions specialists to showcase their abilities in a fast-paced environment.
The single-seat fighter is a regular sight above Hampton and Newport News, sometimes roaring across the sky in tandem. Pilots might grab much of the attention, but weapons crews don't take a back seat when it comes to pride in the job or measuring their importance.
"We have a saying in our field," said Dickens. "Without weapons, it's just another airline."
"We give the pilots the tools they need to accomplish their missions," Lopez added. "So when they come back to us with their munitions gone, showing signs that they've been used, it's rewarding enough as it is."
The weapons crews work in three-person teams. Dickens is a weapons team chief. At 33 years old, he's spent 14 years in the Air Force. Lopez prepares, inspects and loads munitions onto the aircraft. At 19, he is completing his first year of military service.
Langley Air Force weapons crewmen demonstrated loading weapons on F-22s to show their capabilities on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, ahead of an upcoming weapons proficiency exercise.
As a brisk wind whipped across the Langley flight line Tuesday morning, the pair demonstrated how to load the Raptor's 20-millimeter cannon. Lopez consulted a laptop for technical data while Dickens pushed a wheeled cart containing coils of ammunition closer to the aircraft.
The demonstration provided a rare look at the Raptor's gleaming white weapons bay. Because the jet relies on stealth -- its radar signature is said to be no larger than a bumblebee -- the jet roars into combat with no external tanks or weapons pods. Its armament is concealed. Doors flip open to reveal an array of bombs and missiles.
The Raptor carries thousand-pound bombs, small diameter bombs and air-to-air missiles. The team worked carefully but promptly as they demonstrated how to load weapons. Apart from this week's exercise, the weapons crew go through monthly qualifications that measure proficiency, safety and reliability.
"Every month, we always make sure we know what we're doing," said Lopez, "always trying to stay qualified, staying certified."
When the Air Force developed the Raptor, it envisioned going up against Russia or another country with an advanced air force. Then came the global war on terror, where the enemy's weapon of choice was the improvised explosive device. For a time, the Raptor carried the unwelcome tag of the most advanced fighter never to have seen combat.
The Air Force capped production at 187 aircraft plus a few for tests. Almost by default, the Raptor community became a small, close-knit bunch.
The Raptor's fortunes changed in 2014 when the U.S. began launching air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. As of December, the F-22 had dropped 446 weapons in 50 strike missions against targets in Iraq and Syria, Air Force officials said.
It has also played an important escort role, employing advanced sensors to guide and guard other combat aircraft.
"The F-22s make other U.S. aircraft more survivable," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told The Associated Press last summer. "It really is enabling all the rest of the team. Perhaps this is a good model to think about for the future."
Dickens has been with the Raptor since the early days, and its performance in Iraq and Syria was a welcome development.
"It was something a lot of us were anticipating," he said. "I've been on the aircraft since its inception, and we kind of wanted to be on those scenarios, just to see what it can do. Now that it has, we're hoping to see more capabilities in the future."