The energy was electrifying Oct. 21 as hundreds gathered at the H.W. Hunter Pavilion at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds in Lancaster, Calif., to attend this year’s Gathering of Eagles and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the very first flight of the F-22 Raptor.
Eagle Honoree Paul Metz was Lockheed Martin’s chief test pilot at the time and the guy with the right enough stuff to take the fearsome Raptor soaring high above the clouds over Marietta, Ga., Sept. 7, 1997.
“It was a perfectly executed mission,” Metz told those attending the event. “Raptor really demonstrated its power that day, we got our first taste of what the airplane could do,” he said.
Metz said the accomplishment of the first flight wasn’t his alone. “A team of engineers and aircraft maintainers made that first flight [along with me],” he said. “We all did it together, without all those people contributing it would not have been done,” he said.
Five other Eagle Honorees shared the stage with Metz as they too were inducted as an Eagle Honoree by the Flight Test Historical Foundation. Among their other accomplishments, each were part of “firsts” during F-22 flight testing missions.
Joining Metz as this year’s Eagle honorees were: Steve “Hooter” Rainey, Lockheed Martin’s current F-22 chief test pilot.
Chuck Killberg, Boeing’s chief F-22 test pilot from 1991 until 2002. Killberg has close to 10,000 flying hours in a variety of aircraft.
Bret Luedke, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Air Force Test Pilot School. Lockheed Martin hired him in 1993 as an experimental test pilot and by 1995 he was working full-time with Metz on the F-22 Program.
Randall L. Neville, an F-22 test pilot for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems for nine years. He eventually became one of the primary envelope expansion pilots.
James “JB” E. Brown III was on the F-22 program from 2002 to 2013 and flew 547 test sorties racking up 1,042 flight hours.
All six pilots were welcomed as an Eagle of the Flight Test Historical Foundation Gathering of Eagles 2017.
Bill Gray served as Master of Ceremonies at the event and paid tribute to previous Eagle Bob Hoover, a World War II fighter pilot and Air Force flight test pilot with a myriad of accomplishments too numerous to list. Hoover passed away last year.
Lisa Gray, chairwoman of the Board of Directors on the FTHF, served as hostess for the evening and introduced speakers.
The first speaker of the evening was retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Wilbert D. “Doug” Pearson Jr.
Pearson currently serves as deputy general manager of National Aerospace Solutions, LLC and provides test, operations and sustainment services to the Arnold Engineering Development Complex.
Pearson wowed the audience with what many said was a powerful message.
“I am an Airman, I’m proud to stand for our National Anthem and I’m proud to stand when our colors are presented,” he said. The general said all Americans should proudly respect their country’s flag.
He talked about the ongoing effort to raise the funds needed to relocate the Air Force Flight Test Museum outside Edwards’ West Gate so that everyone can have the opportunity to see firsthand what the museum has to offer. He thanked the FTHF and the Flight Test Museum for their initiatives over the past 35 years and for their time and dedication so many folks gave to the cause. He offered a special thank you to Lisa Gray for leading the effort for the past several years.
All the hard work and dedication has apparently paid off, as Gray announced that the Foundation expects to break ground for the new museum in the spring of 2018. As that news was met with a round of applause, Bill Gray reminded everyone that although the foundation is a lot closer, they aren’t there yet and they need to continue to raise funds to bring the project to completion.
On that note the foundation held an auction lead by auctioneer Shawne Chamberlin that brought in more than $2,000. Chamberlin opened the auction offering a United States flag that flew on the first flight of the F-22. The flag was bought by Congressman Steve Knight. Other items sold ranged from first flight posters signed by test pilot Paul Metz to framed artwork and canvas paintings. Proceeds from the auction went to the Flight Test Historical Foundation.
Danny Bazzell, general manager of the FTHF, thanked those who attended the event and said the foundation is all about raising money to build the museum, “Good news, we’re actually getting there,” he said.
Bazzell, who took over the FTHF reins last November, said his goal is to make it the nation’s largest STEM education center in the Southwest region.
Bazzell said that although they expect to start construction early next year, they still need about $7 million to take the project all the way through.