F-22 Deemed Too Expensive to Fix for 6 Years Finally Ready to Fly

Lt. Col. Lee Bryant addresses base leadership along with Lockheed Martin and Boeing representatives, to welcome back to life Raptor # 91-4006, which has been on the ground for almost six years. (Courtesy photo by Christopher Higgins/Lockheed Martin)
Lt. Col. Lee Bryant addresses base leadership along with Lockheed Martin and Boeing representatives, to welcome back to life Raptor # 91-4006, which has been on the ground for almost six years. (Courtesy photo by Christopher Higgins/Lockheed Martin)

One of the U.S. Air Force's oldest F-22 Raptors is back out of the hangar and ready to fly again after six years idle in a hangar, according to the service.

The fifth-generation stealth jet, tail number 91-4006, had been shelved in 2012 for "needed costly upgrades," and with sequestration just around the corner, Air Force officials made the decision "to put it into storage," the service said in a recent release.

One of the most advanced jet fighters the U.S.operates, alongside the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the newly repaired Raptor, part of the 411th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards Air Force Base, California, was re-unveiled during a ceremony this week in front of base leadership and Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. officials, the release said.

"This was a gainfully employed airplane when she was working," said Steve Rainey, Lockheed Martin F-22 chief test pilot and member of the F-22 Combined Test Force at Edwards.

The decision to hold off maintenance for years underscores the unwieldy cost of U.S. 5th-generation fighters, even as the military may be considering a successor to the F-22 and F-35. Unit cost for the F-22 was around $150 million in 2009 but some estimates put the per-plane cost at closer to $250 million in current-day dollars.

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"Our warfighter needs her back flying again," added Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert, 412th Test Wing commander, according to the release. Teichert said he flew the aircraft many times when he was assigned to the 411th FLTS as a project pilot

"The fifth-generation fighter [4006] was one of the first F-22 Raptors to have avionics installed for testing and has been at the 411th FLTS since it arrived in May 2001," the release said.

A video, titled "The Phoenix Rises," played during the ceremony for the now-oldest flying Raptor in the Pentagon's inventory.

Lockheed Martin originally manufactured the stealthy twin-engine fighters. The Air Force originally wanted at least 381 Raptors, but in 2011, production ceased at 187 aircraft. More than 160 F-22 belong to active-duty units, and the remainder are with Air National Guard elements. While some aircraft have come out of active status for testing purposes, the Air Force has 183 aircraft in its inventory today. Four aircraft were lost or severely damaged between 2004 and 2012.

Boeing, Lockheed and the Air Force worked 27 months at Edwards to overhaul the plane to get it back into flying status, the release said. The work was completed in July.

"This included 25,000 man-hours and almost 11,000 individual fixes or parts," the release said.

Air Force officials did not disclose the total cost to repair the aircraft.

The upgrades, which included a new avionics suite, extends the Raptor's life from 2,000 flight hours to 4,000, officials said.

The stealth fighter will now be used as "a flight sciences aircraft," in part of the F-22's fleet modernization effort, the release said.

"It increases our test fleet from three to four, giving us another flight sciences jet," said Lt. Col. Lee Bryant, 411th FLTS commander and F-22 CTF director, in the release. "This will help us tackle the expanding F-22 modernization program."

As this F-22 rolls back onto the flight line, the Air Force is reportedly looking to the F-22's successor, which may be a hybrid of the Raptor and the Joint Strike Fighter.

According to a recent report from DefenseOne, Lockheed has been quietly pitching a hybrid said to have a structure similar to the F-22, avionics like the F-35. Japan and the U.S. Air Force are both prospective customers.

"It's not an F-22. It's not an F-35. It's a combination thereof," David Deptula, a retired Air Force general who now serves as dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies told DefenseOne Thursday.

"That can be done much, much more rapidly than introducing a new design," Deptula said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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