The pilot flying the Raptor accelerates to well past supersonic speed to drop bombs on its target and then dives stealthily to swoop down on an unsuspecting aircraft to claim another kill. This scenario happens daily in the skies and training ranges in Alaska, as the pilots of the 90th, 525th, and 302nd Fighter Squadrons stationed at JB Elmendorf-Richardson sharpen their skills.
The 90th FS (nicknamed Pair-O-Dice) was the first F-22 squadron in Alaska, receiving its advanced aircraft in 2007. The 525th FS (nicknamed Bulldogs) received their Raptors later the same year. In addition, the Air Force Reserve Command’s 302nd FS (the Hellions) is an Associate unit that provides pilots and maintainers who fly and fix the aircraft alongside their active duty counterparts.
According to Lt. Col. Kevin Sutterfield, the 302nd FS commander, the reserve pilots “live and work in local communities and also proudly serve in the Air Force Reserve. We perform the same job functions, have the same training qualifications, and adhere to the same standards” as the active duty pilots.
Together with the pilots of the 3rd Wing, members of the 302nd are poised to deliver combat-ready air power in support of America’s interests in the Pacific region. They also sit alert, ready to go at a moment’s notice, year-round. Two of the biggest differences between the active duty pilots and the Hellion Raptor drivers are continuity and experience.
Pilots in the Reserve tend to stay in one place more often than active duty members, which gives the unit an advantage when it comes to continuity in ongoing missions and the ability to innovate new tactics or procedures. They are often more experienced than their active-duty counterparts. “The 302nd FS, in particular, is the most experienced F-22 squadron in the Air Force,” added Sutterfield. “Not only did we have the first pilot on record to fly 1,000 hours in the F-22 Raptor back in November 2011, but we now have four of the eleven total Raptor pilots who have achieved that 1,000-hour milestone.”
Maj. Jeremy Weihrich, the 302nd FS operations officer, describes the typical new Hellion pilot. “Unlike the active duty squadrons that has a number of young pilots, the Hellion new hires are usually F-22 instructor pilots with about 700 hours in the F-22 and a total of 1,500 hours in fighters, which can be the F-15C, F-16, and F/A-18. They normally have completed multiple combat tours. More than half of our pilots are also graduates of the USAF Weapons School or Test Pilot School.”
Prospective Reserve pilots go through a hiring board and interview to be competitively selected to join the squadron, which only hires, on average, one new pilot per year.
The Elmo Raptor drivers are uniquely situated for both training and potential conflict areas. “The vast size of our training ranges allows our pilots to fully explore the speed and altitude envelope of the F-22,” Sutterfield explained. “This environment is perfect for the type of tactics we fly and missions for which we need to train. The Red Flag and Northern Edge exercises are great examples of the kind of training that’s only possible in Alaska.”
Another big advantage of training in Alaska is the pilots can fly against the F-16s from the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Eielson AFB, located near Fairbanks north of Anchorage and Elmendorf. The Aggressors act as Red Air adversaries and simulate capabilities and tactics of potential threat countries, providing realistic training to the Raptor drivers.
In addition, Alaska’s strategic location allows the Arctic Raptors to deploy rapidly anywhere in the world. They are nine hours or less flight time to almost any location in the northern hemisphere. Further, with the renewed Russian bomber activity over the last several years, the F-22s at Elmendorf are on alert twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. While the exact numbers and details are still sensitive, the Elmendorf stealth fighters have intercepted numerous Russian bombers over the last few years.
The Arctic Raptor drivers have a unique environment in which to fly their unique aircraft. With their strategic location on the globe and their daily dedication to excellence in training, the Pair-O-Dice, Bulldog and Hellion pilots are performing Air Dominance, Alaska Style.
Robert Renner, a former US Air Force F-15 pilot, is an aviation writer. He is the author of Viper Force: To Fly and Fight the F-16.