Many are surprised to discover that the largest organ the human body has is the skin. Skin provides a physical barrier against harmful, external factors. The F-22 Raptor, much like the human body, has a layer of skin called low observable.
LO not only assists in retaining the jets’ stealth capabilities but also prevents corrosion and other damages. Like human skin, the F-22’s coating consists of several layers. The surface of the F-22 appears to be a simple gray paint, but in reality the high-tech surface renders one of the largest fighter jets virtually undetectable by radar.
“Arguably the most important capability of a fifth generation fighter, like the Raptor, is what low observable delivers – the stealth,” said Air Force Maj. Patrick Pearson, a 3rd Wing F-22 pilot at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson, Alaska.
The benefits of stealth technology may escape some in terms of air combat. The ability of the F-22 to prosecute a lethal attack while remaining undetected is why it has the highest air-to-air kill ratio of any other fighter in simulated combat. While incredible lethality has defined F-22 tactics, the aircraft has also become known for its unmatched survivability.
“Survivability is the biggest [factor], so the jet and the pilot can come back,” said A1C Emmanuel Marioni, 3rd Maintenance Squadron LO technician.
Lethality and survivability are critical issues for the men and women in the LO shop, comprised of active duty Airmen from the 3rd Maintenance Squadron and reservists from the 477th Maintenance Squadron. Their daily work readies F-22 pilots to defeat the most advanced adversarial aircraft and surface to air missile systems.
Once a week, the LO shop conducts outer mold line inspections on the Raptor. All the information is placed into a database that rates its stealth capability, called a signature assessment system.
“The lower the SAS rating, the stealthier a jet is,” said Senior Master Sgt. Dave Strunk, 477th Maintenance Squadron fabrication flight chief.
Strunk said that LO application falls into two areas – the removal of coatings to facilitate other maintenance and the removal and replacement to bring the SAS rating down. The job of an LO technician can be a challenging one requiring a high level of attention to detail and adherence to safety precautions.
“We are working all day every day,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Duque, 477th Maintenance Squadron LO technician. “We have 24/7 coverage to ensure a steady flow of progress from the start of a repair to finish. Our accurate cataloging of damages and sound repairs ensure that the aircraft is performing as designed.”
The skin from the body can be taken for granted until it is damaged. The behind-the-scenes efforts of the men and women of the 3rd Maintenance Squadron and the 477th Maintenance Squadron keep the Raptor at the top of its game.
“The constant attention to detail and upkeep from our LO section is essential to projecting the F-22’s combat capability,” Pearson said. “Knowing that our jets are fully ready to go gives me the confidence I need get the job done.”