F-22 maintenance is nearly 'plug and play'

by Staff Sgt. Jason Tudor
Air Force Print News

03/19/01 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - Future maintainers of the F-22 Raptor will realize quickly what America's most technologically advanced fighter has in common with most of today's machines.

It's as close to plug and play as you can get.

That means Raptor crew chiefs will be able to plug a specialized laptop computer into a port on the aircraft's underbelly to diagnose a problem, malfunction or glitch in a wide array of areas from avionics to propulsion.

It is another Air Force first from the F-22 Combined Test Force here and the maintenance team that fixes, tweaks and innovates each day, and this plug-and-play capability is making more than one of its crew chiefs a little wary about the change.

"I'm not sure what to think of that just yet," said Tech. Sgt. Robert Manter, the crew chief for Raptor number 4005. "A lot of us are used to walking around the jet and performing these tests on each of the separate systems. You just don't do that with the F-22."

In fact, there isn't much that is standard about F-22 maintenance technical orders, which, like the next-generation fighter, are still in the developmental phase. Such guidance is being tooled by civilian and military maintainers, who work each day to create an aircraft that will, one day, be the dominant fighter jet on the planet.

Accordingly, these maintainers are working side by side with the airframe engineers, the pilots and others who ply their trade in honing and shaping this aircraft.

For Staff Sgt. Michael Graves, an avionics specialist with the test force, the sensation of being part of the development of a new weapons platform is like no other.

"We're learning something new every day," Graves said. "You become a sponge. We do stuff each day that is just unbelievable."

Every component, black box and weld is made to help lower the number of maintenance people assigned to the Raptor, Graves said. That translates to a smaller personnel footprint on the battlefield, and a big win for Air Force planners.

About that specialized laptop ...

Known as the Portable Maintenance Aid, the laptop will be a key to ensuring the F-22 shelf life and keeping it flying. It will also eliminate much of the paperwork associated with maintaining a fleet of fighters, Manter said. That means no more technical orders. Only compact discs.

The PMA plugs into an interconnected avionics, hydraulics, weapons and propulsion system. In an instant, crew chiefs can check the oil, kick the tires, squeegee the windshield and ensure their Raptor is ready to fly. So far, it is working as advertised, Manter said, and if it's not, he and his team make it happen.

"Everything is centrally located, and the PMA will see it," he said. "Even the smallest things are looked at. It's all connected. If something in the software changes, we collect the data, move it along to where it needs to go and, eventually, we get a new compact disc to use.

"It's a big switch," Manter said about the loss of a thick, black binder with volumes of technical orders.

Innovations like that could also mean a higher mission-capable rate during peace and war. That prospect excites people like Col. Chris Seat, director of the CTF and an F-22 test pilot.

"I think the next generation of folks to work with F-22 will be very comfortable with it right off the bat," he said. "It is going to open up such a tremendous new capability. It's going to be a whole new concept of operations."

The Raptor upkeep is also amazing the ammo troops.

Staff Sgt. Rob Rjasko is one of the ammo kin who recently loaded and watched successful testing of an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile launch. He is also one of the first people to make sure the Joint Direct Attack Munition, a low cost guidance kit which converts existing unguided free-fall bombs into accurately guided "smart" weapons, would fit into the F-22 weapon's bay properly.

Did it fit? "Oh yeah," he said. "No problem."

In Rjasko's world, the F-22 is also changing the way business is being done. Hydraulics and nitrogen, not explosives, release the weapons from their airborne mounts. The weapons bay is also sealed when not employing a weapon, thus lowering drag and helping the jet look like a hummingbird on a radar screen.

When fully loaded, the F-22 can carry two AIM-9 Sidewinders, six AIM-120Cs and its 20mm Gatling gun; or two Sidewinders, the 20MM gun, two AIM -120s and two 1,000-pound JDAMs.

Needless to say, Rjasko has been working double-time to keep up, and knows when the fighter is called to service, it will have no equal. "I've been able to make and implement my suggestions into the F-22 development process. How many people will be able to say that?" he asked. "It's amazing. It's going to be one deadly jet."

While the innovation and testing continues at a breakneck pace until the first phase of testing ends in December 2002, Manter and his colleagues are still in awe of the jet's capabilities and what it will be able to accomplish once deployed.

"Most people won't believe what this aircraft will do," he said.

F-22 test pilot Lt. Col. Gary Plumb agreed. "It is flexible and fast," he said. "It's a very exciting time to be part of this program."

Graves talked about the wider ramifications of what his team his doing. "We're working hand in hand with some brilliant people," he said. "Eventually, we're going to be the ones who are expected to train the rest of the Air Force on how to fix this jet. It's a big responsibility.

"Everything they said it can do, it does," Graves said. "To look at a jet that big, that agile, and be told that no one will be able to see it or catch it is amazing."