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Birds of prey at play

Fri., Aug. 8, 2008

The Air Force’s next-generation fighter, the F-22, will be among the attractions at Fairchild this weekend

The skies above Fairchild Air Force Base will be full of cool planes Saturday and Sunday, and which plane is the coolest may be hotly debated among the tens of thousands expected to attend the free event.

But there’s no debate about which cool plane is the newest. That would be the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force’s next generation fighter, which the military has had in its inventory for less than three years. The aerial demonstration routine, which will be part of the Skyfest air show for the first time, only started in 2007.

“This is really the pinnacle of an aircraft as far as a fighter pilot is concerned,” Maj. Paul Moga said Thursday as he stood near the Raptor he’d flown from Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas to Fairchild – a flight that took about an hour and a half. “It’s the best fighter jet the world’s ever seen.”

He might get an argument about whose plane is better from some of the other pilots at Skyfest. The Navy’s Blue Angels practiced four-aircraft maneuvers with their F/A-18s as Moga finished his post-flight checks. An Air Force F-15 Eagle, also scheduled for a solo demonstration at Skyfest, arrived a few hours before Moga and was parked down the ramp.

Moga flew an F-15 before being assigned to the Raptor four years ago. He said the F-22 represents a new generation of technology that incorporates speed, radar-evading stealth design and avionics.

Each plane has a single seat, two engines and two tails, but that’s where the similarities end, Moga said. “As far as technology and capabilities go, it’s like comparing a college baseball team to a major league baseball team.”

The Air Force wanted to develop an aerial demonstration so the public could see the Raptor fly, he said. “Most of the general public … when they hear the word F-22, they think it’s real expensive and really secret,” he said. “They don’t have an idea of what this aircraft is going to do for the Air Force now or what it’s going to do for the country for the next two or three decades.”

It does have some secret aspects. The radar-evading technology is “a combination of pretty fancy things” that involves the shape and composites in the plane’s skin. The Spokesman-Review wasn’t allowed to photograph the plane from behind.

The F-22 isn’t cheap, with a price tag of $137 million off the assembly line at Lockheed, but it contains the best equipment money can buy, Moga said.

The avionics allow a pilot to detect everything in the battle space and process and transfer data, Moga said.

Putting that technology and the radar-evading stealth in a plane that will fly Mach 2 at 60,000 feet – about 1,300 mph, give or take – is what makes the F-22 unique.

Moga will show off some of that uniqueness on Saturday and Sunday. His goal is to leave spectators in “total disbelief” that a fighter plane can do the maneuvers he’ll fly. “It is completely unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.”

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