- The US Air Force sustained a massive blow to its fleet of stealth fighters in October as a powerful hurricane possibly destroyed several F-22s and as an F-35 crash grounded the entire fleet of Joint Strike Fighters.
- As many as 17 F-22 Raptors may have been destroyed in Hurricane Michael, though the Air Force now says the damage wasn’t as bad as previously thought.
- F-35s have started to take back to the skies, but others remain grounded amid a fleetwide inspection.
- Even if all F-35s and F-22s turn out fine, the losses at Tyndall Air Force Base, where stealth fighter training takes place, represent a huge setback to US air dominance on par with losing a big battle.
The US Air Force sustained a massive blow to its fleet of stealth fighters in October as a powerful hurricane possibly destroyed several F-22s and as an F-35 crash grounded the entire fleet of Joint Strike Fighters.
An investigation into an F-35B crash in September led the Pentagon to ground all F-35s until it could determine whether there was a defect in the fuel lines.
Then last week Hurricane Michael, the most powerful storm of its kind to hit Florida in about 50 years, devastated Tyndall Air Force Base, all but wiping it off the map.
“Tyndall has been destroyed,” Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida told The Panama City News Herald on Sunday.
“The older buildings will have to be razed and rebuilt,” he added. “The newer structures on the base that have survived the monster storm will need substantial repairs.”
Initial reports indicated that up to 17 F-22s might have been damaged beyond repair. That number represents about 10% of all existing F-22s, which the US relies on for air dominance against top-tier enemies.
Pentagon photos showed that destruction at the base affected every aircraft hangar, including one holding F-22s that was severely damaged.
But Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a joint statement on Sunday that the damage “was less than we feared” and that “preliminary indications are promising.”
It remains unclear exactly how many F-22s, if any, were damaged in the storm. But with Tyndall in ruins and the military families living there displaced indefinitely, the fighter training program at that critical base appears to have suffered a serious blow.
“It will take time to recover but we’ve been through this before and our Airmen are up to the challenge,” Wilson’s statement said. “Tyndall leadership will continue working hard to get information to airmen and families and all those displaced. We will be working detailed plans in the days ahead to tackle and overcome the challenges. We will get through this together.”
Meanwhile, the F-35B downing in September most likely caused the US Navy’s USS Essex to enter the Persian Gulf, where white-hot tensions with Iran have frequently produced military threats and harassment without working fighters. All F-35s aboard the Essex are up and running, the Marine Corps Times reported on Friday.
Already, F-35s around the globe have taken back to the skies after passing inspection. The Joint Program Office in charge of F-35 integration did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for an exact quote of how many remain grounded.
In another unrelated freak accident, a Belgian air force mechanic accidentally unloaded an F-16 fighter’s Vulcan cannon into another F-16, which immediately burned to an irreparable crisp.
Lasting damage at Tyndall
- US Air Force
Taken in total, the US has suffered grievous blows to its top-of-the-line fighters’ readiness, particularly with losses at Tyndall that could set the F-22 community back considerably even if a single jet hasn’t been damaged or destroyed.
Without the hangars in working order, and with much of the base’s personnel displaced, Tyndall’s role as a critical training hub for pilots the US needs for air-to-air battles and protecting high-value air assets can’t continue there, though part of Tyndall’s functions could most likely be taken on by nearby Eglin or other air bases.
But September and October have seen the US Air Force hit by freak accidents and severe weather causing damage that seems to have crippled the force more than enemy fire has in decades.