Back in the good old days of the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition, it was easy to daydream about the future of the F-22: Sunset, high over Germany. The balloon had gone up -- this was the Big One. An evil MiG-29 would be prowling along, red stars glowing on its wings, looking for more Luftwaffe F-4s to chew up. Then, in the time-honored manner of horror movies, its Soviet pilot would see something dash by in the corner of his eye. He'd turn to look -- gone! Then behind him -- wshhhhh! Again: Gone! Then -- ka-blamo! An AIM-120 from an unseen enemy destroys the evil fighter foolish enough to try to take on the West. The good guys win World War III.
It's a much more pleasant scenario than the reality: Not only did the Air Force not use the F-22 against the Libyan stooges when it had the chance -- and volunteered that it could -- now its entire fleet of super-jets is on the ground indefinitely. It's not "grounded," as ace aviation reporter Steve Trimble writes, but the F-22 fleet has been ordered not to fly as engineers inspect problems with its pilots' oxygen systems. If, in a pinch, Osama bin Laden Ayman al-Zawahiri did get into the cockpit of, say, a MiG-35 or a J-20, and attacked the U.S., the Air Force could sortie its Raptors to intercept and engage, but short of that, they're staying in the barn.
But that's all right, as a spokesman told Stars & Stripes:
“The temporary stand-down will have a negligible effect on real-world missions, as the F-22 remains available for national security-directed missions. Additionally … commanders may allow one-time flights if warranted and prudent. “Crews will maintain proficiency through simulator and ground training events,” he said.In all seriousness, there is a silver lining here: If the Air Force had deployed the F-22 to Libya this year to take part in first-day-of-the-war strikes or patrols, it may well have risked injuries or even crashes caused by this oxygen glitch, which first prompted officials to order Raptor pilots to stay below 25,000 feet. Keeping the Raptor at home now looks prescient -- the question is, did the Air Force suspect this might be a problem all along and keep the Raptors home to be on the safe side?