USAF spots “apparent” F-22 wreckage, pilot still missing

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Aircraft wreckage spotted by a US Air Force search team is believed to be a Lockheed Martin F-22 that disappeared at 7:40pm on 16 November, the USAF says.

The search for the USAF F-22 pilot is continuing nearly 18 hours after air traffic control at the Elemendorf-Richardson joint base in Alaska lost radar contact with the F-22.

The apparent crash site is located about 100 miles north of Anchorage, the USAF says. The pilot, who is not being identified while the rescue effort continues, was flying what the USAF described as a "routine", nighttime, training mission.

"Finding the missing pilot is our top priority," 3rd Wing commander Col Jack McMullen said in a statement.

If the F-22 crash site is confirmed, it will be the third F-22 destroyed since Lockheed advanced past the prototype stage in the early 1990s.

The loss also shrinks the USAF's future F-22 fleet to 185 fighters. Lockheed is currently building the final batch of 20 F-22s scheduled for delivery before March 2012.

To preserve its dwindling fighter inventory, the USAF plans to upgrade all three fly-by-wire types - F-22, F-35 and F-16 - with an automatic ground collision avoidance system (auto-GCAS). The system is designed to take control of the aircraft if the pilot approaches a non-recoverable condition.

It is possible such a system could have spared the most recent F-22 crash, when Lockheed test pilot David Cooley briefly lost situational awareness during a 9g manoeuvre. As he regained awareness, the F-22 was already diving through 14,000ft at M1.6. Cooley ejected a moment before the F-22 crashed, but the aerodynamic forces at M1.4 killed him.

Another F-22 was destroyed on 20 December 2004 on takeoff from Nellis AFB, Nevada. A maintenance procedure triggered a programming glitch that wiped out the F-22 flight control system, and the pilot ejected with minor injuries.