For Langley pilot, a $64 billion question

Colonel to take part in flight tests of F-22

January 20, 2002|By R. W. Rogers | R. W. Rogers,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. - In 2004, Langley's Lt. Col. Art McGettrick will learn the answer to the $64 billion question that's more important than money.

That's when McGettrick and a small band of other Air Force pilots find out if the F-22 Raptor is worth the billions spent on it and really can both strike lethal blows and deflect them for a decade or more to come.

To learn those answers, McGettrick will push and twist and pry and sweat every possible ounce of stealth and power and agility out of the F-22.

Then he'll help write a report that will influence whether the plane goes into high-rate production, is delayed or worse.

It's hard to overemphasize just how vital the $64 billion F-22 program is to the Air Force. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, former Air Combat Command Commander, has practically staked his reputation on the plane's success.

The current air superiority plane, the F-15C Eagle, is on average older than the pilots who fly it and has been through more wars and combat missions than anyone could have imagined. The Air Force wants at least 337 of the F-22s and more if it can get the money.

None of this is lost on McGettrick. "The Air Force has really sacrificed for the F-22," McGettrick, 38, said.

"We are counting on the F-22 to work well. The stakes are high. It needs to work right and go into high-rate production. The initial testing is promising, but there are some challenges."

McGettrick will soon get a close look at what the Raptor does well and not so well. The movers are soon arriving at his Hampton home. By the end of this month, he and his family will be living at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., the only place where the small number of Raptors are flown.

The father of two young daughters will learn to fly the Raptor from civilian and Air Force test pilots before taking the stick of the single-seat F-22 on his own this spring. He knows he has to learn well because he's teaching the other pilots how to fly the Raptor.

McGettrick will lead a team at Edwards of Air Force officers recently picked to be the first cadre of F-22 Raptor pilots: Lt. Col. Shugato S. Davis, Maj. Kevin A. Huyck, Maj. David A. Krumm, Maj. Mark E. Ladtkow, Maj. Michael Shower, Capt. Charles S. Corcoran, Capt. Christopher J. Niemi and alternate Capt. Craig R. Baker.

Two other pilots, Maj. David E. Thole and Lt. Col. David G. Rose, will train at Edwards before going to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where additional F-22 training will be done.

It's an interesting group and a few have been written about before.

Shower shot down a MIG over Serbia and received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Ladtkow got hurt during the Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, as did Thole and his wife, who might be the only military couple to ever receive his-and-her Purple Hearts.

McGettrick said he knows about half the pilots who made the grade. Not surprisingly, the spots were coveted and the requirements rigorous - more than 1,000 hours flying fighters, a Weapons School graduate and experience as a test pilot. He said the clincher for him was the two years he spent working on F-22 weapons and avionics.

"I think just about every fighter pilot with a pulse volunteered for this. It is always exciting to fly a new fighter," said McGettrick, whose father was navigator on a P-2 Neptune submarine hunter.

In simulation flights, McGettrick said, the Lockheed Martin plane has performed beautifully.

"Now it's time to decide if it does as well as it does in simulation."

"We are going to get a first look at how the F-22 fights," he said. "They are testing now, but it is very basic. We are going to find out what it can do and give it a report card. We are finally going to find out if it is going to be effective. I am optimistic. I think it is going to excel. I think it is going to revolutionize air combat."

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