TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — The devastation caused by Hurricane Michael last fall pushed F-22 Raptor training and operations out of Tyndall Air Force Base, but pilots from the 43rd Fighter Squadron will be periodically returning to Tyndall for repairs to the Raptor’s stealth coating, the squadron commander said.

While the 43rd’s student pilots still conduct academic and simulator training at Tyndall, its F-22s and flying operations have moved 62 miles down the road to Eglin Air Force, Fla. However, since most of the unique infrastructure and staff needed to repair the Raptor’s low observable coating are still based at Tyndall, the F-22 will start going back to its home base for some LO maintenance procedures, said Lt. Col Ryan Wick, commander of the 43rd Fighter Squadron.

“They are able to do some LO maintenance at Eglin. Obviously they don’t have the full spray booth capability yet. They are working on those here at Tyndall, and in fact we’re starting to bring jets back to Tyndall and dropping them in to get LO maintenance done,” he told Defense News in a Feb. 25 interview.

Wick said Air Force maintainers at Tyndall could start doing LO repairs on the F-22 as soon as that week. Early work would probably be limited to “brush/roll” maintenance — sustainment of the coating performed using a brush or roll — while Tyndall’s LO coating spray booths could be ready in a matter of weeks.

During a Feb. 25 visit to Tyndall, Defense News observed multiple F-22s, which flew around the base’s airspace and occasionally conducted touch and go landings throughout the day. The sightings were a welcome presence for several base personnel, some of whom remarked that they had not seen the F-22 since Hurricane Michael.

The Air Force hasn’t made a final decision on whether it will bring the 43rd back to Tyndall or permanently relocate it elsewhere. During a roundtable with reporters on Thursday, Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Holmes said he expects the service to make a decision over the next couple years after going through the strategic basing process, adding that there isn’t “any real hurry” to make that decision.

“We’ll talk through it and think through it with everyone involved — the delegations, the different communities,” he said.

Learning the F-22 again

Hurricane Michael was disastrous for Tyndall, battering every building on base and destroying some entirely. After the hurricane, photos circulated on social media showed a mangled hangar at Tyndall stuffed with F-22s, all of which appeared to have been damaged.

Airmen from the 325th Maintenance Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., return to their maintenance operations section after completing routine maintenance on F-22 Raptors at Eglin AFB, Fla., Feb. 21. (Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes/Air Force)
Airmen from the 325th Maintenance Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., return to their maintenance operations section after completing routine maintenance on F-22 Raptors at Eglin AFB, Fla., Feb. 21. (Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes/Air Force)

Air Force officials said that all F-22s damaged by Hurricane Michael would return to flying status after repairs, but shied away from providing the number affected. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., eventually noted that 17 of the base’s 55 F-22s had been left behind during the storm.

While Wick didn’t say how many of his squadron’s F-22s were impacted by the hurricane, he noted that some of them have already been fixed.

“Some of them got more damaged than others, but they all flew out of here, so I think that’s pretty incredible that that happened,” he said. “Some of them will take a little longer to repair to get back to full capability, but some of them that were left behind are back in our lineup flying every day.”

For the squadron’s students and instructors, the hurricane disrupted not only their training, but their personal lives. In the aftermath of the disaster, all base housing at Tyndall was found to be unlivable, and many with homes in the vicinity of the base also sustained damage.

“We work with a great group of airmen that are very resilient,” Wick said.

“We made it very clear to folks that they need to focus on getting their lives back together back home, because we know you’re not going to be able to focus on your job and the mission if your lives are in shambles. So we were pretty flexible with folks in terms of giving them the time they need to start rebuilding their houses and get things settled before asking them to fly again.”

Most students were able to resume training after Thanksgiving, just a little more than a month after the event.

Students had to do two simulator flights — one on abnormal procedures and another to familiarize them with Eglin’s airspace — and then conducted one additional live flight at Eglin to regain their currency. After that, they followed the training syllabus as usual, he said.

Currently, the squadron has 14 students going through its basic course — the training needed to teach fighter pilots who have never piloted a combat aircraft before — and “a handful” of students transitioning from other fighters. The basic course students are set to graduate in May, only a couple months behind schedule, Wick said.

Meanwhile, the 43rd Aircraft Maintenance Unit has faced its own difficulties. About 246 people are assigned to that unit, which created an even bigger challenge as leadership sought to solve issues with housing and logistics for so many airmen. Even so, the unit did a “remarkable” job in getting planes up and running once operations moved to Eglin, Wick said.

“We showed up on the doorstep of a base that wasn’t an F-22 base, and we basically said, ‘We need to set up full time operations here really as quickly as possible,’” he said.

During a Feb. 26 trip to Eglin, Defense News learned that the 43rd is supporting its F-22s at hangars and shelters recently vacated by the Marine Corps’ F-35 training unit at that base. The service now does its F-35B training at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C.

F-22 maintainers are still “working out the kinks” of getting spare parts to Eglin, Wick said, but “in terms of getting airplanes flying again, they really worked through it well.”