The maiden flight of the F-22 at the Farnborough Air Show sent my stomach soaring a few times. The plane pulled some really cool stunts like flying straight up and then sliding straight back down in a tightly controlled and very slow vertical descent on Monday afternoon. Another maneuver that drew appreciative comments was the very slow forward flight achieved by holding the plane at about a 30 degree angle and seemingly crawling across the sky.
The pilot executed incredibly sharp turns, sideways slips and other aerodynamically challenging moves. But there the Air Force provided no story behind the plane's unveiling. The service left unanswered the question -- why show the plane off, other than to demonstrate that the plane can fly without crashing and pull some neat stunts.
As one jaded air show veteran (who loves missiles) noted, flying vertically and then slipping down in a controlled descent doesn't do much but make you a much easier target. It may demonstrate how reliable and powerful your engine is, but the U.S. apparently has no plans to demonstrate the plane's effectiveness in a wartime setting any time soon. Three separate requests from the Air Force to send the plane to the Iraqi theater have been rejected.
The Air Force had a great opportunity to deliver a clear statement about American airpower by wrapping the plane's appearance up in a compelling story. What we got were some amazing aerobatics that left few of the air show cognoscenti I spoke with very impressed. Of course, it's pretty hard to demonstrate stealth or sensors during an air show flyover. But it still seems as if the Air Force and OSD could have used the opportunity to sell the world on the F-22 and what it may mean for the American military.