September 29, 1990: First Flight of the YF-22 Raptor, A Step in the Life of a Troubled Aircraft

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A Brief History

On September 29, 1990, the prototype jet fighter plane designated YF-22 Raptor, built by a powerful consortium of American airplane manufacturers, Lockheed, Boeing and General Dynamics, made its maiden flight.  The F-22 stealth fighter program was designed to give our Air Force the finest and stealthiest fighter jet ever built, and of course, this complexity came at a price both in time and money.  At the time of its first flight, the YF-22 was still known as the “Lightning II” in memory of the World War II workhorse, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning.  Its name was officially changed a few years later.  (See our vast number of other aircraft related articles.)

Digging Deeper

The YF-22 design beat the competing YF-23 design offered by Northrop.  The YF-23 had some advantages (namely speed and bit more stealth), but the YF-22 promised a more nimble platform with its vectored thrust and the ability to “supercruise” at supersonic speed without having to use an afterburner.  An added plus in favor of pursuing development of the YF-22 was the fact that it was more amenable to being modified for aircraft carrier use than the YF-23, although that aspect was never developed.  As with virtually all prototypes, the YF-22 differed in some ways from the production F-22 model.

YF-22 (s/n 87-0700, N22YF) at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

Problems with getting the first actual F-22 airworthy led to a delay in getting one airborne, which took place in 1997 (though 1996 was the projected year of flight).  Development and training on the F-22 dragged on for a seemingly interminable 8 more years before the F-22 was declared fit for Initial Operational Capability (IOC in airplane talk).  Problems with the F-22 persisted in active duty use as well.

Despite incredible performance on paper and in test flights, the Raptor turned out to have a terrible flaw, oxygen deprivation to the pilot in certain maneuvers making the plane a potential flying coffin.  This problem is allegedly being addressed at this time but has severely limited the plane’s actual usefulness as a weapon or deterrent so far.  Pilots have experienced a variety of oxygen related problems, such as diminished alertness, headaches, emotional and neurological problems, as well as respiratory related illnesses.  It is too early to tell if the problems have been effectively addressed.  The great expense of having a high performance extremely stealthy fighter plane left the Air Force with only 187 in its production run of operational fighters (production of any further units cancelled as of 2011), a number many think is insufficient to do the job of the front line fighter in the US arsenal.  The cost per flight hour of the Raptor is over $68,000 per hour, triple that of the F-16.  Though capable of delivering air to ground ordnance, the internal capacity of the Raptor is only 2000 lbs., far less than other fighter-bombers.  When external ordnance is added (only 5000 lbs., again less than other planes) the Raptor loses its stealth characteristics.  The program has cost over $66 billion, at a time when the need for a manned fighter is debatable, reflecting a 2009 per unit cost of $150 million each.  The incredibly expensive F-22 program was shelved by military planners in the analysis that there was no particular pressing need for a fighter jet with its capabilities at such a cost.  The F-35 multi-service jet fighter was deemed sufficient in capability to support the rest of the US Air Force need for fighter planes.  Of course, as these things are apt to go, the F-35 program has been a nightmare of cost overruns and diminished performance from design specifications.  (With at least 320 F-35’s already built, program cost has soared to over $1.5 TRILLION!, a unit cost so far of $80 to $115 million each.)  Oh, the F-35 has inherited the name “Lightning II.””

F-35A Lightning II

The F-22 fleet is expected to have a service life of about 30 years, much less than the F-15 (IOC 1976) and F-16 (IOC 1978) predecessors that have already been flying for far longer than 30 years.  Plus, those 2 stalwart fighters have built an incredible record in combat and cost a fraction (F-15 under $30 million, F-16 under $20 million).  Abour 1200 F-15’s have been built, and about 4600 F-16’s have been placed into service.  Both of those fighters are still in production, while not only is the F-22 no longer built, industry insiders say no more could be built if we wanted to!  So far, 1 of the 2 Yf-22’s and 4 of the F-22’s have crashed, leaving the F-22 force at 183 units.  In 2018 the F-35 made its combat debut with the Israeli Air Force, and the F-22, never to be sold to any other country, including allied nations, is due to make its combat debut as early as October of 2018.  Time will tell if the F-22 program was a success or failure.

Where did the American military aviation industry and procurement process go so far wrong?  Is the problem(s) due to corruption, incompetence, or the inherent complexity of super-modern systems?  We certainly do not have the answers to these troubling questions, but if you do, please let us know.

An F-22 flies over Andrews Air Force Base in 2008.

Questions for Students (or others): Should the US military concentrate on building unmanned fighters and bombers instead of manned airplanes?  Is the tremendous cost of these weapons systems (F-22 and F-35) worth the expense?  Do you believe the US will need these sophisticated aircraft in the near future?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Dorr, Robert. Air Power Abandoned: Robert Gates, the F-22 Raptor and the Betrayal of America’s Air Force. Robert F. Dorr, 2015.

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Holder, Bill, and Mike Wallace. Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor: An Illustrated History (Schiffer Military/Aviation History). Schiffer Publishing, 1998.

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The featured image in this article, the YF-22 and YF-23 in formation, likely 1990-1991, is from the National Museum of the USAF Fact Sheets: Lockheed-Boeing-General Dynamics YF-22 (file).  This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties.  As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.