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Future Raptor pilots test mettle on Falcons

The tailhook of a 63rd Fighter Squadron F-16 scrapes along the runway before grabbing hold of the arresting barrier Dec 20. The barrier engagement is an annual requirement airfield managers must arrange and perform to ensure the systems are operational. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Raheem Moore)

The tailhook of a 63rd Fighter Squadron F-16 scrapes along the runway before grabbing hold of the arresting barrier Dec 20. The barrier engagement is an annual requirement airfield managers must arrange and perform to ensure the systems are operational. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Raheem Moore)

F-22 Raptors fly in formation. Lockheed Martin delivered the 100th F-22 to the Air Force Aug. 29 in Marietta, Ga., and the latest aircraft will be assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers)

F-22 Raptors fly in formation in this file photo. The Air Force's first four pilots to go directly to the F-22 without previous fighter experience are currently training at Luke AFB, Ariz., in preparation for taking on the Raptor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers)

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- The first pilots ever selected to fly the F-22 Raptor without previous fighter experience started preparing for that day Jan. 14, when they entered the 63rd Fighter Squadron here for the Raptor Lead-in course. 

The Raptor Lead-in course is a five-week opportunity for the four new pilots to experience flying a high-G, high performance aircraft with an instructor in the back seat before taking the stick of the $169 million, single-seat Raptor by themselves, according to Maj. Daniel Munter, 56th Training Squadron instructor pilot. 

"This course is designed to be an intermediate step to (the pilots) taking the F-22 up for the first time and being successful," Major Munter said. 

Pilots and other instructors from the 56th Fighter Wing have been working since early 2007 on this course, which is not necessarily designed to teach the pilots how to fly the F-16, but rather to give them experience in a high-G environment while familiarizing them with other aspects of fighter aviation which were unavailable to them during their previous training. 

Prior to arriving at Luke, the four were part of a pool of eight candidates hoping to be selected as the first students to go directly to the F-22.  Raptor pilots currently flying the airframe had previous flying experience in other fighter aircraft. 

After undergraduate pilot training, the eight newly-graduated pilots were sent to Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, for the Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals course.  That course familiarized them with fighters via the T-38 Talon trainer aircraft. By the end of IFF, the final four were selected to become F-22 pilots. 

The four pilots are: 
-- 1st Lt. Austin Skelley; 
-- 1st Lt. Ryan Shelhorse; 
-- 1st Lt. Marcus McGinn; and 
-- 1st Lt. Dan Dickinson.

Major Munter said by learning to push the envelope in the F-16, the Raptor Lead-in course is designed to help them be successful in the maneuvering dynamics of the F-22. 

One of the major benefits to their F-16 familiarization is the similarities of the two aircraft, specifically the side-stick controls. Other aircraft in the Air Force inventory are controlled with the controls between the pilot's legs. The fly-by-wire system is unique to these two fighter aircraft. 

Other items the students will learn more about while at Luke include night flying, day and night landing, air-to-air refueling and increasing their ability to perform the anti-G straining maneuver. This last item is key, Major Munter said. While the T-38 Talon is quick and maneuverable, it may have pushed the pilots to experience six Gs, or six times the force of gravity. While flying the F-16, the pilots will experience up to nine Gs, making their transition to the most advanced fighter in the world, the Raptor, easier to handle. 

During the pilots' in-brief, Brig. Gen. Tom Jones, 56th Fighter Wing commander, said that this course is exactly what instructors at Luke are used to doing. 

"You will get a lot of experience here from a fighter perspective and an intelligence perspective that's very transferable to the F-22," he said. 

For the new pilots, the opportunity to fly the high-performance F-16 before going on to the Air Force's most advanced fighter is something to which they all look forward. 

"Learning to fly an advanced fighter from world-class instructors is going to be a great opportunity for our class as we transition to the F-22," said Lieutenant Skelley, a Casa Grande, Ariz., native. 

After completing the course here the pilots will go on to the 43rd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., where after more than two years of training, they will take on the F-22.
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