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The need for speed: F-22 Raptors vist West Plains


Last updated 6/27/2019 at 11:21am

Shannen Talbot

A boom operator from Fairchild Air Force Base focuses as he lines up to refuel an F-22 in preparation for Skyfest 2019.

They don't call him Loco for nothin'.

Major Paul Lopez has been piloting aircraft for 13 years, and has been an F-22 pilot for eight and a half. But don't think it ever becomes routine.

"It's very exhilarating," Lopez said. "The blood is coursing through your veins, the adrenaline is coursing throughout your body, your heartbeat is pumping and you get butterflies every time you get to hit the throttle...and take off."

Lopez, call sign LOCO, was the man behind the jet in Fairchild Air Force Base's Skyfest 2019 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor demonstration. He says the name came from "being crazy about life, crazy about being a fighter pilot and crazy about being part of the airshow family."

Gassing up

An integral part of any F-22 flight is refueling, a delicate process done in the air at around 25,000 feet in altitude. Tanker aircraft like Fairchild's KC-135 are equipped with a flying boom, a long, extendable metal arm attached to the underside of the tanker. A boom operator connects the boom to the fuel receptacle of receiving aircraft like the F-22s

Lopez estimated it takes 10 – 15 minutes to fill an F-22 with its 18,000 pounds of fuel - about 3,000 gallons. However, it usually takes much less (sometimes only a few minutes) since pilots often have half a tank or so remaining.

The F-22 Raptors are 63 feet long by 43 feet wide and weigh about 60,000 pounds.

According to Lopez and his fellow pilot and demo safety officer Duston O'Brian, the refueling process actually starts on solid ground, days in advance of any show or mission. Pilots will discuss airspace logistics, talk to tanker pilots and plan minute by minute how the process will go.

It's an important step, because refueling has to happen every few hours when the F-22s are in the air.

O'Brian estimated that the F-22 can only fly for two hours or so before it needs to be refueled.

An aircraft like no other

The F-22 is one of the most highly technical aircraft in the country and was designed with several special features in mind.

What makes the F-22 unique is its fully-integrated avionics, Tech. Sgt. and avionics specialist Joey Aaronson said.

"A lot of older aircraft will have a control system, a radar system, an interrogation system, a communications and navigation system, things of that nature, but with the F-22 everything is integrated and it all talks to each other," Aaronson said. "It all gives whoever's flying the aircraft the to-the-second situational awareness of what's going on in the cockpit."

Aaronson said the twin-engine aircraft is much more technically advanced than older models, and that gives the plane a boost in terms of maneuverability and acrobatics.

"It is a fifth-generation fighter, so it is stealth as far as radar is concerned, so it's low observable which gives us a huge advantage at giving us the first look, first shot," O'Brian said.

The Raptors have a thrust ratio better than 1:1 and exhaust nozzles that can vector thrust, giving the pilot super-maneuverability.

"Each one of those engines are boosting about 35,000 pounds of thrust," Lopez said. "That's 70,000 pounds of energy pushing a 60,000-pound airplane, which is why on takeoff we can just go pure vertical."

Lopez has the distinct honor of being the first African-American F-22 demo pilot, and says that representation is important because it highlights the diversity of the military.

"A lot of kids just want to be athletes because that's what they see on TV," he said. "Unless you have a base near you, the only time you'll see these things is at an airshow."

Lopez said he loves going to shows, schools and hospitals so "a variety of individuals from different backgrounds see that diversity in action, wearing the uniform."

F-22s in action

Air Force Public Affairs officers were hesitant to name a cost per flight hour for the aircraft, saying it is largely dependent of a variety of factors. An investigation by the British Broadcasting Corporation found the planes cost about $140 million each to construct, not including research and development, and cost about $34,000 per flight hour.

Lopez and O'Brian flew F-22s from Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nev. to Washington specifically for Skyfest.

"We operate on a 'Raptor Nation' concept and borrow F-22s from whatever Raptor base is in close proximity to the airshow," Aaronson said. "Every one of the aircraft you see here could go to war the next day."

Shannen Talbot

An F-22 Raptor can be seen from the small space located at the tail of a KC-135 where boom operators lie flat on their stomachs to operate equipement.

And some of them have. In 2014, F-22s performed multiple coordinated strikes and dropped bombs in Syria, and in 2017 were used in a ground-attack mission in Afghanistan.

"It's a great deal of responsibility - it's something we train on a daily basis to know that if you're going to hit the button to shoot a missile or drop a bomb it's a serious concept," O'Brian said. "It's something we talk about all the time and train for knowing it's not all fun and games. We're not just flying around, having a blast - even though we are - but we are also training for a mission to go do whatever needs to be done."

Lopez, who, along with the rest of the demo team, is based out of Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said working with Fairchild Air Force Base is key whether it's during an airshow or a mission.

"The partnership is instrumental - that's the catalyst to us being a successful United States Air Force," he said.

Shannen Talbot can be reached at


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