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Delay forces F-22 flight-test changes

Graham Warwick/Atlanta

Initial flight-testing of the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor has been revised to accommodate the delayed first flight of the air-superiority fighter. Plans to fly the F-22 from Lockheed Martin's final-assembly plant in Marietta, Georgia, to the flight-test centre at the US Air Force's Edwards AFB, California, have been abandoned. The F-22 will now be shipped in a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy transport.

"The test team at Edwards is waiting for the aircraft," says F-22 programme general manager Tom Burbage. "This gets them an aircraft quicker." When the first F-22 was rolled out on 9 April, the maiden flight was planned for 29 May, but was delayed by a series of minor hardware and software problems.

Chief test-pilot Paul Metz described the 7 September first flight as "flawless". Two more flights are planned before the F-22 is grounded for further ground tests before being transported to Edwards early in 1998. The wing will be removed to enable the aircraft to fit inside a C-5.

The original test plan had called for an initial flight, followed by a grounding for strain-gauge calibration and structural testing, then four to six flights from Marietta to clear the ferry envelope, including limited aerial-refuelling qualification. Now, the bulk of flight-testing has been transferred to Edwards. The second F-22, now in final assembly, will be ferried to Edwards in mid-1998.

Metz says that there were "no problems" on the 58min first flight, and that the aircraft "-was ready to go again" after the landing. The F-22 was flown to 20,000ft (6,100m) for handling-qualities manoeuvres at speeds of up to 250kt (460km/h) and angles of attack of up to 14 degrees. "It is very agile, with very snappy, crisp and precise responses," he says.

The first flight took place as the US Congress met to resolve differences between House and Senate funding for the F-22 in 1998. Gen Richard Hawley, commander of USAF Air Combat Command, says that funding stability is vital to avoid driving costs up further. Cuts have already reduced the number of production F-22s to 339.