USAF may have lost some of its best fighters in Hurricane Michael

U.S. Air Force photo

Throughout the second week of October 2018, Hurricane Michael ravaged the eastern coast of the United States, killing at least 18 people. In Florida, Tyndall Air Force Base was struck by winds as high as 250 km/h (155 mph) on October 10. Several of the F-22 Raptors based at Tyndall could have been damaged, or even destroyed.

The base houses the 325th Fighter Wing of the United States Air Force, which operates 55 Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor fighters. Out of them, 33 were reported to have been evacuated towards Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio in anticipation of the hurricane. However, 22 planes had to be left behind, some of them undergoing maintenance and reparations. The ones still on the base were sheltered in hangars.

The airbase was reopened on October 11, 2018, by the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron based at Hurlburt Field. That unit is specialized in establishing an operable airstrip in any situation, including the aftermath of a category 4 hurricane.

No official assessment of the damages has been disclosed yet. An USAF official quoted by Lara Seligman, Pentagon correspondent for Foreign Policy, said that the aircraft were intact and that initial reports were “promising

The unit cost for an F-22A Raptor, one of the most advanced fighters of the USAF, would be around $185 million and $350 million. However, it is all the more valuable that the the US Air Force has only 187 copies of it, and no possibility to acquire more. The assembly lines were dismantled in 2011, with most of the tools being reassigned to the F-35 program. If the USAF were to lose one aircraft under current conditions, it would not be able to replace it.

On October 10, 2018, while Tyndall Air Force Base was suffering the worst of Hurricane Michael, an F-22A belonging to the 3rd Wing from the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, United States, was forced to make an emergency landing due to a landing gear malfunction. The pilot managed to exit the aircraft safely. The belly of the F-22A and its left wing suffered heavy damages.

If the plane is to be repaired, it could take time before it takes to the skies again: on May 31, 2012, a student pilot  retracted his landing gear before applying enough thrust power, resulting in the aircraft also skidding on its belly. The trainee only suffered minor injuries. However, the repairs on the F-22A took six years and costed about $35 million.

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