The Last Raptor

Jan. 27, 2012

The last F-22, Tail No. 4195, on the line at Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., plant. As the last Raptor took shape, the assembly line went dark. The program utilized up to 95,000 workers at a time, including suppliers and vendors. (Lockheed Martin photo by Damien A. Guarnieri)

On Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, in a ceremony attended by scores of employees, officials, and a marching band, the 187th—and final—F-22 Raptor built for the Air Force rolled off Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Ga., assembly line. This brought the long production saga of the Air Force’s premier air supremacy fighter—the world’s only operational fifth generation fighter—to a close.

“This is just the end of production,” Lockheed F-22 Program General Manager Jeff Babione said in a late December 2011 interview. He said the ceremony was a tribute to all the men and women from Team Raptor who took the aircraft from the drawing board to reality and helped run the line.

The first F-22 had rolled out to the flight line in 1997. Now, 15 years later, each Raptor reflects the workforce that helped deliver the “world’s greatest fighter,” Babione said.

Tail No. 4195, bearing the fin flash for JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, will be delivered to the 525th Fighter Squadron, of the base’s 3rd Wing. After its rollout from the factory in December, Lockheed towed the fighter to the Marietta plant’s “fuel barn” where it entered fuel systems purging and servicing. Later, a Lockheed Martin pilot will perform flight line engine runs, said Babione.

According to Air Combat Command, the aircraft will undergo a series of standard acceptance flights, followed by final finish applications and radar cross section testing before delivery. Lt. Col. Paul Moga, the F-22’s first demo pilot and current commander of the 525th FS, will fly the aircraft to Alaska once the final checkout is complete.

In 1991, Lockheed Corp., General Dynamics, and Boeing won the contract to begin development of the successor to the Air Force’s F-15 fleet. Work began in 1994. At its peak in 2005, around 5,600 Lockheed Martin employees worked on the Raptor at locations across the country. The fleet was once anticipated to be as large as 750 aircraft, but was steadily reduced over the years.

The last Raptor rolls out the bay doors and onto the flight line at Lockheed’s production facility. After a series of company and government flight tests, the F-22 will be delivered to the 525th Fighter Squadron at JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

The End of the Line

Since the beginning of construction for tail No. 4195, all the major assemblies have shut down and gone dark as the last Raptor took shape, Babione said. Under contract with USAF, the company identified in excess of 30,000 tools related to the line it would like to preserve, and Lockheed is in the process of disassembling the tools, wrapping them in protective material—identified with RFID (radio frequency identification) tags—and placing them inside connex storage containers for shipment to the Sierra Army Depot in California. They will be stored at the site until needed by the government.

The program has utilized up to 95,000 workers at any one time, if you count all the vendors and suppliers involved in the aircraft’s production, Babione noted. Most of the primary workers set up shop at the major assembly areas, with as many as 900 in Washington State, around 800 in Texas, and about 900 in Georgia working on the program at its peak, he added. Many of these workers have had to find jobs elsewhere now that the line has stopped. Some have moved over to the F-16 and F-35 efforts in Fort Worth, Tex. Many in Marietta have transitioned to C-5 and C-130 work.

(Lockheed Martin photos)

Because the F-22 was the first fifth generation fighter, “we pioneered some skills that were never done before, and that has been good for the assemblers to go work [on the] F-35,” Babione said. The Joint Strike Fighter features similar stealth coatings and technology aspects and requires skilled workers to fabricate and install these systems, he added.

The end of the assembly line marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Raptor, program officials said. The fleet will receive a series of upgrades and modifications in years ahead. “This is only the beginning,” said Col. Sean Frisbee, the F-22 system program manager at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. “The next phase will [add] greater capability to an already incredible aircraft.”

The last Raptor is a far different aircraft than the first one delivered in 1997. The first half-dozen aircraft were “hand built,” with the sole purpose of proving and expanding the flight envelope of the F-22, with minimal avionics capability for testing and a shorter service life by design, an ACC spokesperson said.

The Air Force expects to take delivery of the last aircraft in May before it heads to Alaska to serve as a front-line air dominance and attack fighter.