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My squadron had been at our forward deployed location for several months, and the time had finally come to return home. Although we brought several F-22s over with us, we had more pilots than jets. This meant that some of us were able to fly the jets out from home station while the rest were relegated to ride as passengers on a transport aircraft. I had arrived in theater on a KC-10 tanker, and was one of the lucky ones chosen to fly an F-22 on the return home. There are a lot of nuances involved in ferrying fighter aircraft around the world. I will try to give you a glimpse into what it’s like to take a single-seat fighter jet from one corner of the globe to another.
The trip home actually began several days prior to our departure. I had brought all kinds of clothing and gear packed into one large roller-duffle and one A-3 bag (a canvas bag large enough for me to pack my two year-old son in). Obviously those bags weren’t going with me in the F-22. I was given two metal suitcases, affectionately called “sniper cases”, in which to pack everything I would need over the next several days. The sniper cases are only 30”x12”x4”; so about enough room for a pair of shoes, two changes of civilian clothes and underwear. Everything else would be put on a cargo plane bound for home station. I dropped off my two large bags to be palletized and loaded onto a C-17, wondering if that would be the last time I saw them.
There was a palpable excitement in the air the day before our departure. I showed up to the squadron where we met our AOS (Air Operations Squadron) Planner. He had flown in from the States and done all of the route/fuel/tanker planning to get us all the way back home. I was given a packet that included our flight plan – to include our ALTREV (reserved altitude block en-route), Form 70s (distance/time/fuel calculations) for each leg, divert information, and our air-to-air refueling (AAR) game plan. The planner briefed us on every aspect of the plan to include the weather required for us to launch.
Let me tell you, there are a lot of moving parts when it comes to taking several fighter jets around the world. We were to meet up with tankers departing from bases all over Europe and the Middle East. If any of the tankers fell out due to maintenance issues or local weather, the house of cards would come tumbling down.
In addition to the brief by the Planner, we had a brief by the flight doc. When sitting in one place for 12 hours straight (including time on the ground) there are a lot of human limitations that need to be addressed. She briefed us on the optimal diet to follow just prior to the flight to minimize discomfort. She also distributed “go pills”, a prescription of Dexedrine, and gave us strict instructions on their use. The Air Force wasn’t taking any chances. With only one guy in the cockpit there is no one to take over when you get tired.
Finally, the morning of our departure arrived. Fog had rolled in over night and visibility was only a couple hundred feet as we drove to the squadron. We got a last minute brief on weather and NOTAMS. I had loaded up on sandwiches, snacks, water, and piddle packs, and was ready to ride the pain train. As we stepped out to the jets, the fog magically lifted giving us several miles of vis by the time we taxied to the end of the runway.
We departed with our first tanker, a KC-10, via a “buddy departure”. The fighters take off first and circle back around in the VFR pattern while the tanker releases brakes and starts its climb out. We joined up MARSA (Military Assumes Responsibility for Separation of Aircraft) with the tanker just a few miles past the departure end of the runway and began the slow climb up to our altitude block.
Throughout the 11-hour flight, we would be topping off our fuel tanks to keep enough gas to make it to a “missed refueling base” – an airfield designated as our primary divert in case our air refueling systems were not functioning. This meant that we would each be on the boom about every hour.
With the first AAR successfully out of the way, it was time to settle in and drive. The fighters typically stay within a mile of either side of the tanker throughout the flight. We put half of the F-22s on the left wing of the tanker, and the other half on the right. It’s important to switch sides periodically as staring to one side frequently to maintain formation position can take a serious toll on the neck.
The tanker assumes Navigation Lead responsibilities for most of the en-route flying and does all of the coordinating with ATC throughout the flight. The coordination is transparent to the fighters as we only monitor two frequencies: the AR Boom frequency – where we can talk to the tanker’s boom operator during refueling – and our own flight discrete frequency where we discuss any systems issues and try to keep morale up during the long flight.
I would periodically scroll the cursors on my Primary Multi Function Display (PMFD) to the divert bases to check time and distance to arrival in the event of an emergency. It’s always good to have a hip pocket game plan if things don’t go as planned. Every once in a while I would check my destination and look at the ETE. I stopped doing this until the last couple of hours because it seemed to make time go by more slowly.
Due to the exceptionally long distance and single-seat nature of our jets, we had to make a stop between our forward deployed location and home. A base had been chosen about halfway along our route where we could stop and get some much needed rest.
In our next post, we will continue the journey home and talk about some of the nuances of such a long flight. If you think about it, there’s no bathroom, refrigerator, or microwave on board, and you can’t get up to stretch your legs!