The U.S. Air Force continues to be coy about the extent of the damage to the approximately 17 F-22A Raptor stealth fighters that remained at Tyndall Air Force Base as it suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Michael. But the service has now revealed that the data it had about which hangars were sufficiently hardened against the force of the storm’s winds appears to have been inaccurate, which could have ramifications both for the work of reconstructing Tyndall and for other bases in hurricane- and typhoon-prone areas.
Aviation Week got the new information in an interview with U.S. Air Force General Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command (ACC), on the sidelines of the Airlift/Tanker Association Conference on Oct. 27, 2018. Hurricane Michael made landfall in the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10, 2018, with the eye of the storm passing right over Tyndall, rendering the base virtually unusable and uninhabitable. The majority of the F-22s at the base relocated to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia to escape the storm, but not all of the Raptors could make it out in time.
“All the F-22s will be fine,” Holmes stressed to Aviation Week, without giving a more detailed assessment of the damage to the aircraft. But “the hangars that had a design life to take the highest winds turned out to receive some of the most damage.”
As Hurricane Michael passed overhead, Tyndall’s own weather monitoring facilities registered wind gusts up to nearly 130 miles per hour. Holmes said that, based on other data, the actual peak speed was closer to 172 miles per hour. Under the Saffir–Simpson scale, a Category 5 Hurricane is any such storm with sustained winds at or above 157 miles per hour.
To provide some perspective, Hurricane Andrew, which flattened what was then Homestead Air Force Base in Florida in 1992, had winds reaching up to 175 miles per hour. 1980’s Hurricane Allen holds the record for peak wind speeds of any tropical cyclone in the Atlantic Ocean, with gusts around 190 miles per hour.
We don’t know what wind speeds the hangars at Tyndall were supposed to be able to survive. At present, the U.S. military primarily uses formulas set out in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC), a publication of the International Code Council, to determine what “wind loads” it should design its buildings to have in order to resist storm damage.
The building in question date to before the issue of the latest IBC and the service may have built them to a different standard, as well. Tyndall's Hangar 1
and 2 predate the latest building codes, but did receive major upgrades in the early 2010s. We also don’t know how the Air Force classified the hangars in terms of risk.
The 2015 IBC has four risk categories, with the most extreme covering “aviation control towers, air traffic control centers and emergency hangars” and “buildings and other structures having critical national defense functions.” If the hangars were in this highest risk category, the IBC calls for structural features to resist three-second gusts of up to 120 miles per hour only, well below the force of Michael’s winds. This calls into question whether the hangars at Tyndall would ever have been able to fully weather the storm if the Air Force had followed the IBC's requirements.
Whatever the case, “it turned out none of that [data] was very accurate,” General Holmes admitted to Aviation Week. “Some little flat ones that were rated to collapse at 75 knots [wind 86 miles per hour] made it through the hurricane with no problems.”
A team of specialists is now looking into how and why the data about the hangars’ structural integrity was wrong, which appears to have led authorities at Tyndall to put F-22s, as well as other aircraft, in even greater danger inadvertently. This could have impacts beyond the base if the Air Force finds that its methods for assessing the storm-proof nature of buildings have been flawed on a broad scale.
Another group is examining Air Force procedures for using weather forecasts to plan for base evacuations. However, as The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway has examined in detail, it would have been all but impossible for the service to have moved all of the Raptors out of Michael’s way.
“We’ll certainly gather lessons from that,” Holmes noted. “And then you have to figure out ways to pay for the lessons that you gather.”
The General is definitely not wrong about the latter part. In its latest budget request for the 2019 Fiscal Year, the Air Force asked for more than $39 million to buy just one six-bay hangar for F-35A Joint Strike Fighters that will eventually be situated at RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom. That project’s description doesn’t call for any additional hardening against extreme weather.
Buying better hangars may be a preferable alternative to having to spend large sums to repair damaged high-end assets, such as the F-22s. The Raptor’s stealthy design, especially the special radar-absorbing treatment for its external skin, along with the aircraft no longer being in production, already make it costly to operate and maintain.
After one F-22 suffered a belly landing at Tyndall in 2012, it took the Air Force six years and $35 million to get it flying again. The pictures the Air Force has released so far indicate that at least some of the Raptors that rode out the Hurricane may have escaped with relatively minimal damage. The cost of even minor repairs could easily add up, though.
So, while Holmes has made clear that the Air Force plans to return all of the damaged aircraft to operational status, it’s not clear what the bill for that will be in the end or exactly what condition the planes will be in at the end of the day. In August 2018, the service finished just rehabilitating and upgrading another F-22 that had been sitting, undamaged in storage for five years at a cost of $25 million.
Depending on how extensive the necessary repairs might be, it could turn out to be more cost-effective to cannibalize some of the Raptors for in-demand parts to help improve the availability of the rest of the fleet to meet the Air Force's operational needs. Many of the F-22s at Tyndall are older types and primarily used for training. to begin with. Demand for combat-capable stealth fighters, in general, is only likely to increase as the Pentagon shift's its main focus to preparing for high-end conflicts against potential "great power" adversaries, such as Russia and China.
In the meantime, the Air Force is focused on getting Tyndall back up and running to some degree, with the goal being for the base start to resume basic operations on Jan. 1, 2019. The facility’s ultimate future remains in question. After Hurricane Andrew, the service declined to rebuild all the destroyed structures at Homestead and eventually transformed it into an Air Reserve Base.
In addition, in July 2018, the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report about Air Force F-22 operations, as a whole. Among other things, the watchdog recommended consolidating the already relatively small number of Raptors into fewer units to reduce sustainment costs. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has also demanded the Air Force improve the availability rates for the stealth fighters from less than 50 percent to at least 80 percent by the end of 2019.
“We can’t fly aircraft out of Tyndall at the moment,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said during a visit to the base on Oct. 25, 2018. “But by Thanksgiving, we will have F-22s in the skies over the Panhandle.”
But the Air Force will need to find a way to do build at least one hangar at Tyndall that can proveably survive major hurricanes in the future or continue to risk playing something of a Russian Roulette with jets that have to remain behind during severe storms. The state of the base's facilities is already steadily turning into something of a political nightmare for the service, especially with regards to the fate of the F-22s.
With the added concern about whether the Air Force knows what kind of weather its hangars can survive, along with potential plans to consolidate the F-22 force overall, the real question may be how long the Raptors will continue to call Florida home.
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