JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. –
For the first time in his more than 20 year career, Master Sgt. Christopher Plath held his breath and felt the intense pressure during the take off and landing of F-22 tail #85 on April 9, 2021. As a flight chief in the 192nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Plath stayed quietly in command of his exclusive team of Virginia Air National Guard maintainers, advising them to stay focused even while a crowd of onlookers started to gather on the Langley flight line in hopes of witnessing the end result of what Plath said were long, tireless hours.
“I knew without a doubt that my team was the best possible team I could’ve had and that we did everything within our power to make that jet better than it was the day before the mishap,” Plath said. “But, there’s still doubt in the back of your mind ‘did we do everything?’ ‘did we miss something?’”
In the days leading up, the Guardsmen went to great lengths to double, and triple check their work. They consulted with Lockheed Martin engineers, conducted a high-speed taxi to test any rattling or drag on the brake system and even took the jet into the Hush House, a specialized, insulated facility where jet engines are tested at their maximum performance, to induce any possible points of failure.
Since January 2020, “eight-five” had been sitting in a hangar after an incident upon landing caused the fifth-generation Raptor to skid across the runway. Maintenance Airmen reported hearing the unnerving sound as it came to a screeching stop on its right wing that day.
“As soon as it touched down and collapsed, I was in shock,” Plath said. “We kind of just stood there staring at it, praying the canopy is going to open up and the pilot is going to get out.”
Once they confirmed the pilot was safe, 1st Fighter Wing and 192nd Wing maintainers immediately got to work ordering parts and formulating a plan to get eight-five back into the fight.
VaANG Airmen train and fight side-by-side with active-duty Airmen as part of the total force integration between the 1st FW and 192nd Wing, contributing to the Combat Air Forces’ warfighting capabilities. The partnership was established in 2005 and allows the VaANG to share in the support of airpower worldwide, including the maintenance and operation of the F-22 Raptor.
Guard members working in garrison with an active duty unit are also able to provide home-station continuity during Regular Air Force (RegAF) mobilizations and changes in permanent duty stations. Maintainers from the 1st FW were responsible for the jet until they were tasked with a deployment before parts started rolling in. To maintain continuity, Plath was officially appointed “impound official” in December 2020 to oversee the rebuild. After doing his own inspection of the damage and documentation of initial repairs, Plath said he knew he needed to select a crew to ensure they could all remain on the same shift and be dedicated to nothing more than the task at hand.
Before it could take off, tail #85 required a massive overhaul including new landing gear, a new flight control surface on the right wing and a new wing tip.
The team: Staff Sgt. Drevonte Swain and Senior Airman Ethan Martin, 192nd Maintenance Squadron low observable Airmen, were pivotal in repairing significant outer-skin damage. Tech. Sgt. Kenneth Carpenter and Staff Sgt. Nicholas Potter, 192nd AMXS weapons load crew members, ensured the main weapons-bay door was replaced and the weapons bay operational. Staff Sgt. Lauren Hayes, 192nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron avionics specialist, ensured the integrity of the aircraft’s integrated systems. Along with Plath, Tech. Sgt. Eric Talman and Staff Sgt. James Sheaves Jr., 192nd AMXS crew chiefs, were in charge of the overall maintenance and repairs—together they were “Team 8-5.”
More than 130 days of collaborating diverse specialties proved successful for the team. But also, Plath added, the crew was able to learn from each other and gain a certain respect for each other’s expertise while working together and offering a helping hand or assistance to their teammates when needed.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this team of maintainers,” said Col. Matthew Hummel, 192nd Maintenance Group commander. “Through their dedication, expertise and hard work, they resurrected aircraft 85, five months ahead of schedule. More importantly, however, they learned from each other and helped each other across normal Air Force Specialty Code boundaries, making them individually and collectively better.”
As it taxied down the flight line towards its first takeoff in over a year, Talman bid the jet a final “see you soon” with a slight graze on its left wing as it went by. Plath, along with Lt. Col. Timothy Strouse, 192nd AMXS commander, and Chief Master Sgt. Gregg Allen, 192nd AMXS superintendent, walked down to get a closer view of the aircraft taking flight.
Maj. Daniel “Honcho” Thompson, the F-22 pilot assigned to the 149th Fighter Squadron, ripped through the air space as observers watched idly for almost an hour; “the real test is the landing,” Plath said. After safely landing and taxiing to his staging area, Thompson signaled a sign of approval.
“He gave me a thumbs up as he went by,” Plath said. “It made me feel super relieved, and words can’t describe how proud I am of the men and women assigned to my team. All the hard work; the blood, sweat, tears. The nerves and anxiousness, at some points frustration and anger. All of that came to an end and became worth it to see the airplane take off and land safely.”