UPDATE//26 Aug 1:13 PM EDT// Deciding that Irene poses a significant threat to Langley AFB, the Air Force has decided to evacuate its F-22 squadrons from the base. A spokesman tells the Newport News (VA) Daily Press that the USAF has authorized a "one-time" flight of three Langley-based F-22 squadrons to Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana. The Air Force's entire Raptor fleet has been grounded since early May, due to concerns about the jet's onboard oxygen system and potential toxins in the cockpit. Conditions permitting, the stealth fighters are expected to return to Langley early next week.
****It's a standard military drill as a hurricane approaches coastal bases: Navy ships head out to sea, and aircraft are flown to inland bases.
And, as you might expect, military assets in the Mid-Atlantic Region have begun evacuating as Hurricane Irene churns towards the U.S. mainland. Earlier today, elements of the Navy's Second Fleet left port in Norfolk, Virginia for the open waters of the Atlantic. At sea, the vessels avoid damage that might result if they remained at their berths during the storm. As many as 27 surface vessels and submarines left Norfolk on Thursday; they are expected to remain at sea for 3-4 days.
As the Second Fleet sailed into the Atlantic, the Air Force was making plans to send some of its aircraft to installations well outside the hurricane's path. At Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, about 60 F-15E Strike Eagle fighters and 7 KC-135 Stratotankers left the installation on Thursday, heading for Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.
Farther north, transport and tanker aircraft at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey were preparing to deploy to Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota. Additionally, KC-135s assigned to the New Jersey Air National Guard are heading to McConnell AFB, Kansas, home of an active-duty air refueling wing.
But perhaps the biggest military story of Hurricane Irene is the Air Force assets that are staying put, namely the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters at Langley AFB, VA. The service's entire F-22 fleet has been grounded since early May, due to problems with the aircraft's on-board oxygen system. Making matters worse, the Air Force later found toxins in the blood of Raptor pilots after flights where they reported cognitive problems.
Until the source of the problem can be determined, the Air Force believes its wise to keep all F-22s on the ground. But Irene poses a particular threat to Langley, which lies along a branch of the Back River, only 11 feet above sea level. During Hurricane Isabel in 2003, the base suffered more than $200 million in damage, mostly from flooding. Isabel was a minimum Category 1 hurricane; some models suggest Irene may be a Category 2 when it passes near Langley Saturday night.
Officially, the USAF has not made a decision regarding an F-22 "hurri-vac" from Langley. But sources close to the program suggest that the Raptors assigned to the base's 1st Fighter Wing will stay put. Some aircraft are being moved into maintenance hangers; others will remain under covered parking along the base flight line, and a few are being housed in a hangar belonging to NASA, which operates a research facility at the base.
Collectively, these facilities provide shelter for many of the F-22s at Langley. But leaving the $150 million jets at the base--during the hurricane--entails certain risks. Irene's projected path will push tremendous amounts of water into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, including the Back River. Flooding from the storm surge, coupled with heavy rain, will overwhelm the base's drainage system, leaving the flight line vulnerable, along with parked aircraft.
Irene has the potential to deal another blow to the F-22 fleet. While extensive preparations have been made to protect the aircraft, damage from flooding, wind and rain could cause millions of dollars in damage, and further delay the return of Langley's Raptors to the air.
There is an outside chance that the Air Force might approve some sort of waiver--and authorize some sort of last-minute evacuation of the F-22s--that possibility seems increasingly remote. Apparently, the service believes the risk to pilots is too high. There's also the problem of preparing aircraft that haven't flown in more than three months (for a hurri-evac mission), in a matter of just two days. Consequently, the Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing will (apparently) ride out the hurricane at home station.