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May 22, 2009—Last year, then-Pentagon weapons czar John Young took a jab at the F-22, saying the aircraft was proving overly expensive to operate and its mission-capable rate was too low, in large part due to the efforts needed to maintain the aircraft’s radar-evading skin. He said the trend line was negative in this regard.

Fast forward about a half year to the F-22 program office at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. One hears a different story when discussing the stealth fighter with the officials who are involved day-to-day in its management. In fact, they said the aircraft is holding up quite well.

“Our maintenance manhours per flight hour and our reliability show continual improvement,” Glenn Miller, support contractor in the Raptor program office, told the Daily Report in a sit-down interview last week. Noteworthy is that maintaining the F-22’s low-observable attributes—an admittedly challenging task—is tied to the aircraft’s mission-capable rate and is not viewed as a separate measure of readiness. Even with that, the F-22’s trend line is still positive.

Despite the progress, Miller and Vince Lewis, chief of capabilities planning and integration in the office, acknowledged that keeping the F-22’s LO signature at the required levels has taken more maintenance manhours than initially projected. And, the stealth skin’s preservation continues to demand a lot of attention.

“LO material is still sensitive to corrosion and other things; it’s not like a build-it-and-forget-it surface yet,” explained Lewis.

To counter these LO demands and reduce the required maintenance manhours, the program office is continually focused on identifying new materials and process improvements. “There is a constant effort in the program to find better materials, better stuff, better training, better maintenance procedures, [and] better advice to the field guys,” Miller explained.

Lewis said some initiatives with new LO gap-filler materials for the aircraft’s panel joints are already “showing some very positive results.”

Let’s not forget that the F-22 is the first high-performance, all-weather stealth fighter designed, unlike previous stealth platforms, to be maintained on the flightline and not in some climate-controlled protective hangar with maintainers wearing special gloves. The F-22 encounters extremes of hot and cold temperatures, pulls many ‘Gs,’ and rolls, turns, and climbs and dives at breakneck speeds, all of which place stress on the LO skin and the materials that plug the skin’s seams and panel joints.

Despite the daunting nature of the maintenance task, “I would say we’ve been very successful at maintaining LO at the field level,” Miller said.

Lewis noted that when a contingent of F-22s deployed overseas for the first time—to Kadena AB, Japan, in February 2007—those aircraft’s availability rates proved to be higher during the deployment than their stateside numbers. He characterized this as “a pleasant surprise” attributable to the training and skill of the Raptor maintenance teams.

“They were pumped and they were ready and they did an outstanding job and really brought us some good sorties,” he said.