Hurricane Michael damaged potentially more than a dozen U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor stealth fighters at their base on the Florida panhandle on Oct. 10.
That’s nearly 10 percent the Air Force’s F-22s. And if Japan’s own recent experience is any indication, it could take the flying branch years to recover from the loss of so many planes — even if the loss is temporary.
Hurricane Michael struck northwest Florida as a category-four storm. As it roared across the state’s panhandle region, the storm flattened whole towns and killed at least 18 people.
Tyndall Air Force Base, the main training facility for the Air Force’s 183-strong F-22 force, lay directly in the hurricane’s path. Prior to the storm, the base housed 55 Raptors. Tyndall’s wing includes several training units and one combat-ready F-22 squadron that has flown combat missions over Syria.
At least 33 of the radar-evading jets evacuated to Ohio in the days before the storm made landfall. Some of the others were unflyable and remained at Tyndall along with the base’s “stay-behind” staff, who moved grounded aircraft into hangars, closed the doors and hoped for the best.
The unflyable jets reportedly included one that suffered a mechanical problem while attempting to take off on its evacuation flight to Ohio. Many of the others were grounded because they were missing key spare parts.
The Air Force routinely “cannibalizes” a portion of its planes, stripping them of parts in order to keep others flightworthy. As of March, Air Force statistics indicated just half of the Raptors were “mission-capable,” Air Force Times reported. The rest had been cannibalized, were grounded for repairs or lacked key upgrades for frontline duty.
The storm’s winds, which peaked at 150 miles per hour, damaged every hangar at Tyndall, The New York Times reported. Photos that appeared online showed hangars missing roof panels — and the distinctive shapes of F-22s inside the wrecked structures.
Crews quickly began assessing the damage. “What I can say is that today is a better day than yesterday, and things are going to keep getting better,” Col. Brian Laidlaw, commander of the base’s 325th Fighter Wing, stated on Oct. 13. “Each day we recover more of Tyndall Air Force Base.”
The storm damaged as many as 17 F-22s, Foreign Policy reporter Lara Seligman tweeted on Oct. 14. U.S. taxpayers paid around $380 million apiece, including development costs, for a total of 195 F-22s. Several of the twin-engine jets have crashed. The Air Force has retired a few examples that mostly flew test flights.
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