By the time Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle last week, most of the aircraft based at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City had been flow out of harm’s way. But between four and 17 F-22 Raptors stealth fighter jets that were unable to fly due to maintenance issues remained behind, and reports indicate that some or all of the planes were damaged in the storm.
Tyndall is the main training facility for the F-22, and home to 55 of the 183 Raptors in the U.S. fleet. The F-22s that remained at the airfield, along with an unknown number of T-38 trainers and QF-16 target drones, were stored in hangars that were severely damaged by the storm, which to the surprise of weather forecasters became a powerful Category 4 hurricane as it approached the Florida coast.
The F-22 has a per unit cost of roughly $150 million, but when developmental costs are taken into account, that figure soars to about $380 million. If just three of the jets were affected by the storm, then something like $1 billion worth of military hardware was damaged by Hurricane Michael. And if 17 jets were damaged, that means that about 10 percent of the F-22 fleet is out of commission.
Defense Secretary Mattis said that he hoped all of the damaged aircraft could be repaired, but a more comprehensive analysis of the jets would be necessary. “I’m not ready to say it can all be fixed, but our initial review was perhaps more positive than I anticipated ... in light of the amount of damage,” Mattis told reporters Monday.
Some critics expressed shock that the Air Force would leave such valuable aircraft behind as the storm approached. But defense writer Tyler Rogoway said that even more than most modern combat aircraft, the F-22 is an extremely complex machine that is often out of service: “The F-22, in particular, is more analogous to an exotic supercar or even a high-end race car than anything else. It requires dozens of hours of maintenance for every single flight hour and deep maintenance can take days or even many weeks to accomplish, depending on what is needed to be done and availability of spare parts, which can be scarce.”
A Government Accountability Office report from 2016 said that the F-22 has “unique maintenance challenges” relating to its stealth exterior that result in extended down times. This chart from the report shows that at any given time, less than half of the F-22 is available for operations.