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Damaged F-22 makes comeback after six-year repair job

A Lockheed Martin F-22 grounded since a trainee pilot’s error led to a crash landing in May 2012 could be ready to return to service next March after a nearly six-year-long repair job, according to a new US Air force document.

The process to return the aircraft, serial number 4037, to service condition offers a glimpse into the effort the USAF will undertake to keep as many of the limited number of F-22s flying rather than writing them off after extensive damages.

The return-to-flight effort was documented in a presentation two weeks ago to the Aircraft Structural Integrity Program conference in Jacksonville, Florida by Joseph Neslon, a USAF civilian working in the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center.

The repair effort began shortly after the mishap occurred on 31 May 2012. A trainee pilot at Tyndall AFB, Florida, attempted a touch-and-go landing, but mistakenly retracted the landing gear before advancing the throttle to military power. Instead of taking off, the aircraft settled on its metallic and carbonfibre belly and skidded 853m (2,800ft) down the runway until stopping. The pilot then exited the aircraft without injury by opening the canopy.

A team of USAF, Lockheed and Boeing structural repair experts convened to analyse damages valued at about $35 million, according to Nelson’s presentation.

In addition to repairing scratches to the skins of the wing and the stabilator, the USAF also replaced the skins and doors of the central and aft fuselage.

The analysis also showed that two internal components – a fuselage bulkhead and a section of wing skin – required the USAF to install metallic and carbonfibre patches, Nelson’s presentation shows. The most significant repairs were made to the bulkhead known as flight station 637, where buckled webs needed to be replaced with large structural patches.

The USAF is finalilsing the repairs to the FS 637 and the wing skins, Nelson adds, but the aircraft is due to return to service by March.

Serial number 4037 will return around the same time that the USAF plans to re-introduce another mothballed F-22 to flying status. Serial number 4006, one of the original test aircraft, had been parked in flyable storage, but is scheduled to return to service soon with Block 20 software.

The F-22 fleet stands at 137 combat-coded aircraft, 15 test aircraft and 31 training aircraft.

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