Imagine flying a machine that its builder says is "the only thing more complex than the human body" -- an aircraft that the Air Force has so far spent about $17 billion to develop.
The Air Force began at least thinking about the F-22 in 1981. It was debating what should replace the F-15 as the country's leading fighter plane. Ten years later, a team led by what is now Lockheed Martin Corp. was awarded the contract to build it.
This was the goal: Build a fighter jet so sophisticated that other countries won't even bother fighting back. Lockheed Martin has launched an advertising campaign with the tag line, "The first thing it will kill is an enemy's appetite for war."
But some critics argue that the demise of the Soviet Union leaves no threat to justify such an expensive weapon.
If all goes well, the first F-22 will fly at the end of this month, and the Pentagon will decide in 2004 whether to seek full production of 48 planes a year. That production rate may change if Congress adopts a Pentagon proposal to buy a total of 340 planes, down from the originally planned 438 -- while raising the cost of each aircraft.
Even critics concede that the technology is intriguing. The F-22 is supposed to be at least as "stealthy" -- hard to pick up on radar -- as the F-117 stealth fighter or B-2 bomber.
Both those models are relatively slow and cumbersome because of their radar-avoiding, bat-like shapes, while the Air Force says the F-22 will be extremely maneuverable and more than twice as fast -- comparable to or better than an F-15.
It's in the cockpit that the F-22's technology is on display, technology aimed at making the plane so simple to fly that the pilot is free to take on a new role as tactician.
Inside the cockpit of the F-22
1. Situation display: The central computer screen in the cockpit, called the situation display, is where war seems to become video game.
In older fighters, such as the F-15C, the pilot sees a swarm of readouts and displays and puts them together in his mind to figure out who is shooting at him and how to respond.
The situation display on the F-22 is supposed to do that for him: The screen offers a diagram of the pilot's surroundings in the air and on the ground.
Looking at a "videoscape" of red triangles -- the symbol for an enemy plane -- and red circles representing air defense sites, the pilot identifies targets and puts them in the order he wants to fire at them.
Unlike the F-15, the F-22 is supposed to be able to draw this information from sources beyond just the plane's own sensors. Like a browser on the Internet, the plane's processors can
download data from radars on the ground or aboard other aircraft or from satellites.
2. Defensive display: This screen highlights the air and ground radar systems that the F-22 is evading.
3. Throttle: The throttle controls engines that can accelerate the plane to twice the speed of sound.
Designed to provide more than twice the thrust of the engines on an F-15, the F-22's power plant is the first to offer so much acceleration without the use of fuel-thirsty afterburners, extending the plane's range.
This also means the jet radiates less heat, making it less visible to heat-seeking sensors and weapons.
No other airplane can fly so fast and still be stealthy. Designers say that the small radar "signature" of an F-22, combined with its great speed, will make it an extremely difficult target for ground-based anti-aircraft missile systems.
4. Mouse: A fingertip-sized pad on the throttle serves as the mouse controlling the cursor on the main cockpit display screen. Move the cursor onto an "enemy" symbol on the screen, and the computer should identify the craft, the weapons it carries, its speed and its location.
Clicking a button next to the mouse marks the selected enemy as the first, second, third or fourth in line to be targeted.
The pilot also can click on green symbols representing other F-22s to find out how much fuel or how many weapons a wingman has on board. The F-22 contains two main computers that control all on-board systems. If one computer goes down, the other is supposed to take over. If one antenna or sensor goes down, the computer is programmed to reconfigure another to take its place.
5. Weapons display: The screen tells the pilot what weapons he has on board. Missiles are carried internally, since mounting them on the wings would add drag and make the plane more visible to radars.
The main weapon is the Aim-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, a radar-guided rocket designed to track down a target over a range of 30 miles. With the missile's precision and the F-22's stealth, the pilot is supposed to be able to shoot long before he can actually see his target.
Looking at either the central display or the heads-up display -- a sort of TelePrompTer that lets the pilot see critical computer information without looking down in the cockpit -- the pilot watches an "enemy" symbol until it comes into missile range.
L The computer flashes a discreet "SHOOT" and the pilot fires.
The missile arcs out toward the horizon and disappears. The display screen tracks the missile and, theoretically, shows the enemy flare up and disappear when the warhead hits.
According to the Air Force, the targeted flier will never know he's being attacked until his plane explodes, because the F-22 is too stealthy to show up on radar at such a range.
This capability is called "first look, first shoot, first kill."
6. Control stick: The pilot uses the side control stick to make the plane roll, dive or pull up. It is a fly-by-wire system -- the controls are activated electronically, not with cables.
And the system is designed to heal and reconfigure itself: If an aileron is damaged by shrapnel, for example, the plane is supposed to adjust everything else automatically so the pilot still has normal control.
Pub Date: 5/18/97