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Sept. 7, 2011—When Hurricane Irene took a turn toward JB Langley-Eustis, Va., at the end of August, Air Force officials knew they couldn't risk such an expensive and critical national asset. They had less than 24 hours to get 28 fifth generation fighters to dry ground.

It was the largest evacuation ever for the F-22 fleet and not an easy one either considering Raptors across the Air Force have been grounded since early May due to safety concerns over the aircraft's on-board oxygen-generation system.

"In my 23-year career, this is one of the days I actually will really remember, just because it was one of the most momentous things to see our airmen just act like it was another day at work," Col. Kevin Robbins, commander of the 1st Fighter Wing, told the Daily Report in a telephone interview from Langley.

Robbins requested the grounding be temporarily lifted on Thursday, Aug. 25, so the Raptors could escape the oncoming hurricane. While Langley has hardened shelters to protect some of its F-22s, there are not enough shelters for all of the wing's Raptors, thus necessitating the partial evacuation.

By Friday morning, Langley's F-22s had been authorized to fly. The first two aircraft embarked on the hour-and-a-half flight to Grissom ARB, Ind., around 10:00 a.m. on Aug. 26. The plan was for four ships to take off every half hour after that. By 4:00 p.m., the last of the evacuating F-22s were wheels up.

Unlike before the grounding, when officials had placed a 25,000-foot ceiling on air operations, there were no restrictions, said Robbins.

"The standdown is about mitigating risks. Not one pilot walked out to any one of those Raptors with any doubt in their mind that the jet would fly fine and they would be perfectly safe," said Robbins.

However, the aircrews were well aware that they were not at the top of their game after four months of flying only simulators, so they "self-imposed safety restrictions" on themselves, Robbins said.

"Based on the fact that there was a standdown, we took it upon ourselves to mitigate the risks as much as possible and to do everything we can to protect the aircraft. And, we did it with the mindset that we haven't done this in nearly four months. Our people really went about it with the right picture," he noted.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told the Daily Report last week that he expected the F-22 fleet to be up and running again "soon," adding that Langley's evacuation was simply an early implementation of the "return-to-flight" plan that will go into place when the grounding is lifted.

Although the Raptor community certainly is looking forward to getting back into the air, Robbins said he expects the return to flight operations to ramp up slowly.

"It's a calculated risk. We won't fly the jets on week one, the way we did four months ago," he said. "Gen. Schwartz said he expects us to get back to flying soon, which is great and we are expecting that. But, as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, he can do this from a different perspective than we do. . . . He sees it from a macro perspective. For us, we were just flying the jets to safety and that's all this was about. We did no additional training, nothing else. It was all about the safety of the aircraft. We did not make any assumptions at all that this was the start of anything. We just knew we had one job to do and that's what we did."

Now that the Raptors are back home at Langley—as of late last week—the standdown is in place once again, said Robbins. However, the successful deployment to Grissom is proof that airmen are ready to get back to work, he emphasized.

"I'm really proud of our airmen and the way they went about attacking the standdown,” he said. "They didn't take it as, 'Oh, we can't fly.' Just because we can't fly doesn't mean we can't train to fight. Flying makes it more realistic, but we were able to find creative ways to do things that we normally don't have the time to do."

For example, Robbins said F-22 maintainers were able to train on demanding tasks that normally take three to four days to complete, such as removing the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer.

"Some things don't replace flying, but we were able to keep ourselves at a pretty high state of readiness during the standdown," Robbins said. "Based on the way we train regularly, we can take a four-month down like this and still maintain a proficiency without a huge amount of atrophy. I don't think we got to that point, which is evidence by what we did with the evacuation."

That point comes "somewhere around the six-month mark, when you get into such a deficit that you have a hard time pulling out of," he added.