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1990: YF-22 Lifts Off


The F-22's first combat use comes 24 years after the first flight of the Lockheed YF-22 from Palmdale on Sept. 29, 1990. It was the third public first flight for a stealth aircraft, after Northrop's rival YF-23 -- which had flown on Aug. 27 -- and the B-2. The reason that the YF-23 was first to fly was engine development: Northrop had fitted P&W's YF119 in its first air vehicle and GE's YF120 in its second, and Lockheed had elected to do the reverse, and the YF119 qualified earlier. Along with Aviation Week's reporter, the late Mike Dornheim, I was at the first flight: and as anyone wishes a first flight to be, it was anticlimactic and as predicted. It was followed by a rapid envelope-expansion program before Lockheed was announced as the winner in April 1991. 

The only piece in the story that may have been played down officially was the reason that the landing gear stayed down. Although fuel state may have had something to do with it, flight test director Dick Abrams later revealed that there was a more basic reason: What Abrams called "Fascist software" was preventing the gear from coming up. Finally, the engineers installed a hard-wired switch and bypassed the vehicle management system. 

The detail in Aviation Week's report reflected the era of stealth glasnost that followed the break-up of the Warsaw Pact and the consequent downward pressure on the defense budget -- at the time, the U.S. Air Force was up to its ears in new-built fighters and the need for a costly new airplane was challenged. Aside from two truly ugly conceptual drawings, the shape of the competing Advanced Tactical Fighter designs was secret until the rollout, but that changed quickly. Even more information would flow out over the next few months, although there were limits: after someone blurted out that YF-22 PAV-1 had supercruised at Mach 1.58 on its variable-cycle YF120s, a ban on public comparisons of the aircraft and engines was imposed and rigorously maintained. 

It is often suggested that the GE-powered YF-23 PAV-2 was the fastest of all the ATF demonstration-validation aircraft, and Northrop's fans, to this day, maintain something of a "we was robbed, I tell you, robbed" attitude to the source selection.  Pentagon and Air Force leaders fed the fire initially by being non-specific about the choice -- but a lot of it had to do with prior performance. At the time, although the story was closely held, Northrop was still in big trouble on the B-2, which had done poorly in its first radar cross-section tests. As a senior Air Force acquisition officer grumbled, just before the source selection:  "We've got a lot of major contractors who can't find their fanny with a search warrant. They've signed up to build things that they didn't know how to build." 

One prescient observation comes at the end of the AW&ST story, where Dornheim notes that the name "Lightning II" was being unofficially used for the YF-22. The F-22 became the Raptor -- and it was the F-35 that was named after both the Lockheed P-38 and Britain's iconic Cold War interceptor.

► Read the report in the October 8, 1990 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

Lockheed ATF Prototype Begins Flight Test Program

Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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Aviation Week & Space Technology marked its centennial in 2016. Here, we highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history.

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