When hurricane Michael hit Florida, Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City was in the direct the line of fire. The Base was home to several dozen of our top military jetsthe F-22 Stealth fighters. Lisa Fletcher found out 17 of those planes were hit hard by the storm.
Lisa: What is your understanding as to why all of the F22s were not flown out of Tyndall before Hurricane Michael hit?
Rebecca Grant: The F22s at Tyndall were suffering from a shortage of spare parts. The F22s that were left behind, were unflyable mainly because of spare parts issues. This was an underfunded program. If you have an auto repair shop and you lay off half the people and you don't buy parts, you can't fix cars. This is what happened with the F22. The Air Force had to cut maintenance personnel a few years ago and the long, sequestered defense budgets have meant that we haven't bought enough parts for the F22 replacement parts.
Lisa: Almost all of the damaged F22’s were kept in aircraft hangars.where planes that can no longer fly are sometimes referred to as “hangar queens."
Rebecca Grant: It can refer to any aircraft that a squadron has decided has so many parts missing that they'll go ahead and take another part off that to fix an airplane that's more flyable. You do that five or six times and you have a Hangar Queen which means that it's likely to just be in that hangar for a long time. The sad thing, is to see that happen to a rare asset like the F22 where it really is just a matter of funding more spare parts for the aircraft. There are even problems sometimes, getting spare parts for the F22s that are deployed overseas in the counter-terrorism operations. Hangar Queens happen, but you don't want to see that happen with a premier new asset like the F22.
Lisa: What's the extent of the damage to the F22s left behind?
Rebecca Grant:We're still waiting to learn the extent of the damage. We know that at least five of the aircraft left behind had been brought out of the damaged hangar and have flown away to Langley Air Force Base which is another F22 base. Looks like those will have only minor damage. There are others that we're still waiting to see what the extent of the damage is.
Lisa: And it isn’t just the F22’s at Tyndall.Last year, most F22s were grounded.
Rebecca Grant: In 2017, the F22 fleet as a whole, reached a low where it was only 49% mission capable. Lisa: Some might argue that it's not worth it. That these planes are already as highly advanced as they are, they're already becoming obsolete and there are other planes that are being built for far less money. Rebecca Grant: I would repair every single F22. In fact, the Air Force just repaired an older F22 that had been used in tests and they brought that back after six years of not flying it. The F22 is still the world's number one fighter.The Chinese and Russians have nothing like it, so the Air Force needs to fix every single F22.
Lisa: A reasonable person may ask, "What are these incredibly expensive and valuable aircraft doing in a part of the country where they could be hit by a hurricane? Why not move them out prior to a crisis?
Rebecca Grant: It makes a lot of sense. What no one realized was how deep the readiness hole is in this case and how long it's taking the Air Force and the Navy to recover from the readiness under-funding.
The Air Force estimates fixing all those planes could cost up to 1 billion tax dollars.