- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — Royal Air Force Lt. Dan Robinson competed with thousands of other hotshot British aviators for a single slot training on the world’s best fighter jet. After three months of intense training, he will soon become the first foreign pilot qualified to fly the American F-22A Raptor — the most expensive fighter ever built. Each of the supersonic stealth jets typically train against six F-15 Eagles to make the mock battles equal.

“It is the most advanced fighter in the world. Given a chance, any fighter pilot in the world would jump at the chance to do this,” Lt. Robinson said.

The 29-year-old Iraq combat veteran joined seven of the U.S. Air Force’s top pilots in March for training at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle. He’ll soon head to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and join a combat-ready Raptor squadron, where he could go to war as a member of the U.S. fighter group if called to do so.

Only 70 American pilots are qualified to fly the Raptor. In a recent Alaskan training exercise, one pilot and commander joked that plane was “almost like God” because of its supersonic stealth capabilities, which make it almost impossible for opponents to detect electronically.

“You never know where it is at, ‘cause you can’t see it, but it’s always there when you need it,” said Brig. Gen. Hawk Carlisle of Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Experts say Lt. Robinson’s qualification to fly the fifth-generation supersonic fighter is an important step in the F-22A’s evolution.

“The U.S. and Great Britain have this really special relationship, and this is another example of that,” said retired Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

The Royal Air Force pilot’s involvement in the Raptor program shows a willingness of the U.S. to include its closest ally in a program with highly sensitive technology, he said.

“The reason why we have been so successful in every war since World War II is air supremacy. The F-22 is going to be the aircraft that provides that for the next 20 or 30 years. There is no way to counter a stealth aircraft — it is an enormous deterrent,” he said.

Britain and the U.S. and six other partner nations are working together on development of the $256 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project, which is years away from production. The two nations have had issues over sharing stealth technology on that project.

Pilots say the Raptor is unique because of its active stealth, speed and ability to electronically scan the battlefield. It was originally designed for air-to-air combat but was expanded to include ground attack capabilities.

Lt. Robinson is low-key about piloting the $130 million aircraft, which cost more than $360 million each to produce when research and development are added.

Flashy call signs including “Mooch,” “Rage,” “Hero,” “Spanky,” and “Taxi” are engraved on brass plates above the lockers of his fellow American pilots, while his locker simply reads “Dan.”

Such nicknames are not a tradition in the Royal Air Force and he has yet to receive an American call sign.

He is quick to shoot down any suggestion that his selection to fly the world’s best fighter jet makes him Britain’s top fighter pilot.

“A lot of guys were equally as suited to the job as I was. A lot of it was timing in my career, being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Anyone that flies on the front lines of the Western forces is highly trained.”

His excitement builds when he discusses flying the F22-A.

Among the big differences between the F-3 Tornado, which Lt. Robinson flew for the Royal Air Force, and the F-22A is the amount of data pilots are required to process in the cockpit, he said.

“There is so much information coming at you. You have to learn to take all of that information from all of the sensors,” he said.

Lt. Robinson’s flight suit is specially designed to allow for the higher altitudes and G-forces achieved by the plane. The F-22 can cruise at speeds of more than 1,000 mph at an altitude of more than 60,000 feet without using its afterburners, which augment the thrust of the engines. Using its afterburners, it can vector off its thrust and maneuver turns and speeds of more than 1,400 mph.

“So for example if I pull a 9-G turn, it’s nine times the force of gravity pushing down on your body and obviously on all of your organs. The effect of that is all of your blood pooling down in the lower part of your body,” Lt. Robinson said, demonstrating the flight suit, which covers his legs and torso and inflates to push blood upward. “If you didn’t have this, it would cause you black out.”

Other than some language issues, Tyndall flight instructors had little difficulty working with the British pilot, said Maj. Mike Cabral, the squadron’s weapons and tactical officer.

What Lt. Robinson called a “fight circuit” the American pilots call a “flight pattern,” and an “overshoot” in American flight speak refers to something a pilot is doing wrong in the flight pattern, but the same term for British pilots means something different.

“He could have used a decoder ring for U.S. speak instead of UK speak, but as far as tactical terminology we are very close. In general, fighter pilots are fighter pilots,” Maj. Cabral said.

And he praised the British interest in the Raptor program.

“The U.S. never goes to war on its own. Now we have a key player who understands what the F-22 brings to the fight,” he said.

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