This segment is part of the IEEE Spectrum series “Fastest on Earth.”
Fastest Jet Fighter: Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor
Susan Hassler: When we think air dominance, the F-22 Raptor zooms to mind. At 1500 miles an hour, it’s the U.S. military’s fastest airborne fighting machine. To check it out, we sent Sue Karlin to Edwards Air Force Base, in California’s Mojave Desert, and to Nellis Air Force Base, in Las Vegas.
Sue Karlin: Seventy thousand pounds of thrust. Mach 2 speeds. Nine g’s. Add vertical acceleration, maneuverability, and stealth—and you’ve got the sauce that makes the F-22 Raptor the world’s fastest jet fighter.
Col. Robert Novotny: They changed the entire way an air war is fought. It’s probably the most maneuverable plane I’ve ever fought against.
Sue Karlin: Don’t worry—this guy’s not the enemy. Col. Robert Novotny is a flight test commander at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. He flew F-15s alongside F-22s as a sparring partner during their development.
Col. Robert Novotny: When you fight against the F-22, its speed is a problem. For me, if I’m acting the bad guy, I can’t outrun them. They’re shooting me from a lot farther away, and I usually never see them.
Sue Karlin: So what does 1500 miles per hour feel like?
Col. Robert Novotny: Our planes are so well designed now, so used to transitioning in and out of the speed of sound, it’s imperceptible. You don’t know it. So every time we give a backseat ride, we always tell them, “You’re ready to go the speed of sound?” And they say, “Yeah.” And I go, “Well, we’ve been going the speed of sound for, like, the last 30 seconds.” And they don’t even know it.
[song, “I Can’t Drive 55!”]
Sue Karlin: The real physical test isn’t speed. It’s g forces, which can make your body feel several times its weight. So pilots wear pressurized body suits that circulate their blood.
Col. Robert Novotny: To the untrained person who gets in the jet, it’s a religious event. It is an eye-opening event. It crushes you. The g forces will crush you. To someone who does it every day, or does it pretty frequently, you develop a tolerance. Your blood pressure tends to be higher, your body develops a resting tolerance to help you handle some of the g’s, and then we wear special equipment. Luckily, the g’s aren’t sustained for a long period of time, so your body can recover.
Sue Karlin: F-22s are essentially flying computers with hydraulics and engines. Before flights, engineers hook up laptops to the planes and punch in commands. Only the top fighter pilots, with science degrees and years of experience, get a shot at flying them. Before taking over Nellis’s Air Force Weapons School, Col. Robert Garland flew F-22s.
Col. Robert Garland: Because it is easy to fly, but a very difficult weapons system to operate, it takes [a] significant amount of time and experience to be able to execute our missions successfully.
Dennis Quaid (as Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff): “Who’s the best pilot you ever saw? You’re looking at him, baby.”
Michael: It’s not the cowboy attitude you see in movies like The Right Stuff. It’s really a disciplined, scientific approach. You can think of testing as conducting an experiment, like you would a chemistry experiment in a laboratory.
Sue Karlin: Michael, whose last name is classified, is a flight instructor at the test pilot school of Edwards Air Force Base, in the Mojave Desert.
Michael: We’re dealing with airplanes and going fast. It takes attention to detail, like you would a combat operator. So you need both—you need that focus to be an operator, and you also need that discipline of a scientist.
Sue Karlin: Except few labs are quite so dangerous. Maj. Chris Keithley is an F-22 test pilot at Edwards.
Maj. Chris Keithley: I’ve had folks that I’ve either flown with or known in the operational or test community that have died doing their job. And so when that happens, it definitely hits home, because certainly, that could be me. At that point, you certainly mourn first, but then after that, the need becomes one for learning from that experience.
Sue Karlin: Such risks and responsibility can overshadow the lure of flying, best relayed by this story from retired Nellis F-16 pilot Tom Reichert.
Tom Reichert: It’s like a roller coaster with absolutely no rails. One night we were flying over the Great Salt Lake out in Utah during a training mission. When we climbed above the clouds, you could see the solar radiation hitting the Van Allen belt, and it created a light show, like private fireworks, just for us. It was just one of the most awe-inspiring sights you could ever see. I used to always tell my students when I taught them to fly, you are so busy from the minute you climb into the cockpit until the minute you step out, every mission, just take 10 seconds, flip the airplane upside down, and look around, and never forget you have the coolest job that there is.
[song, “I’m Learning to Fly”]
Sue Karlin: I’m Sue Karlin.