Going Direct: Boeing 737s Versus Lockheed Martin F-22s

An article on Forbes.com yesterday posed a question many of us have about the future of our air defenses. Namely, who’s going to fly these planes? Turns out it’s a bigger problem than you might have imagined. And, as usual, there’s more to the story.

First off, no one can seriously do anything but marvel at the technology that’s gone into the creation of the two newest U.S. fighters, the F-35 and F-22, though people will disagree about how much they cost and are costing, which is a lot. But it turns out that having those planes and being able to use them are two different things.

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In the Forbes piece, journalist Niall McCarthy, who, like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com fame, uses data to try to understand a complex world that often defies easy analysis. The subject McCarthy and Forbes are interested in is markets, and military aviation is a huge market. In his piece, McCarthy uses the Air Force’s own data to answer questions to which there have been few good answers so far. IN this case, the first question is, how great is it to have the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, the two most advanced fighters in the world? According to what McCarthy can glean from Air Force data, it’s a mixed bag, and it might be getting worse.

According to Air Force figures on usage rates on their planes, neither fighter is getting flown as much as it should be, and not because there are no battles to be fought but because the planes have a terrible dispatch reliability rate. In military aviation, this is known as “availability.” In business aviation, it’s typical to have dispatch rates of over 95 percent. At one point Gulfstream said its G650 (which was my primary plan if I won the big lotto, shucks) had a DR rate of 99.7 percent. The two USAF fighters, in stark contrast, have dispatch rates hovering, even without VTOL capabilities, around 50 percent. Some of that is simply because military planes live harder lives than bizjets. The most reliable plane in the military, according to the Forbes story via the Air Force Times, is the Boeing C-17 transport, at around 84 percent. The worst is the F-22A, at less than 50 percent.

Some of that could be blamed on the aircraft themselves, as McCarthy points, due to their maintenance heavy stealth coatings. And they’re new and super high-tech machines. McCarthy doesn’t mention, but there’s a lot of top secret electronic gear on the planes, and the Air Force isn’t about to reveal what that gear is and how reliable it is, or isn’t.

And that poor reliability rating could get worse rather than better, thanks (or no thanks) to the airlines. With transitioning military pilots looking at good salaries as airline pilots in short order, the market conditions have changed substantially. Previously, the move from the military to the airlines was far less certain, and starting salaries were low. Today with a staggering shortfall of pilots, the airlines have had to increase pay by a lot, and there are jobs waiting for qualified pilots starting yesterday.

Of course, the downside is that flying a 737 or RJ isn’t as much fun as flying an F-22 or F-16—when’s the last time you heard of an Airbus A-320 going full afterburner on departure? Still, when it comes to home and family, an airline job these days will be hard for military pilots to turn down when their commitment is up.

And if the Air Force has a plan for this change in market conditions, we haven’t heard it, but we hope that they do. Because, to state the obvious, an airplane is never available unless there’s someone to fly it.

And if you’re thinking, well, this is where drones come in, we agree. They will be a huge factor in this fast-changing world.

4 thoughts on “Going Direct: Boeing 737s Versus Lockheed Martin F-22s

  1. Hi Isabel,
    Interesting article on the two technologically advanced aircraft and having no one to fly them. The F-22 is the fighter of the future (at least for now). Much better than the Russian Sukoi. The Israeli Air Force proved it by flying F-22’s unnoticed into Iranian airspace a few months ago. Of course, they take a bare bones (?) F-22 and install their own super secret electronics in them. The Air Force needs to up the ante for pilot compensation (salary) in order to retain and attract new pilots. According to one Air Force general in the Pentagon, it takes three years of training for the F-15 pilot to learn and be proficient with all the systems of the aircraft. The general is a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam as a fighter pilot. Maintenance will always be an issue for these advanced fighters. Unfortunately the last administration put military readiness at the bottom of their priorities. A friend of mine was a crew chief for an F-15 flight during the Cold War. Aircraft were returning from Europe with all kinds of maintenance issues, and many were sidelined because of the lack of parts. I was in the Cavalry in Europe in the early 70’s and there wasn’t enough money for us to train. If the issue is needing pilots, then there should be an aggressive campaign to recruit them. If the issue is parts and maintenance they should be provided. America’s future depends on supporting our military and the people who serve. Gary

  2. I did a double-take upon seeing your headline about F-22s directly above a picture of an F-35, but on reading further, I gather they’re interchangeable for the purposes of this article.

  3. it is time to slow stop reverse the arms race …it is crazy…who will attack who and why?
    The world is too connected interconnected…

  4. I know a bit about this as a retired naval aviatior who has spent the last 20 years as a contractor in the military modification and maintenance business. Those airplanes that are maintained “organically”, eg, through government depots have significantly poorer availability than those airplanes that are maintained via a commercial contractor. Why? Because of the “9 to 5” mentality of the civil service versus the “I can be fired” mentality in the private sector. When I was with one contractor who was doing overflow depot work on the F-18 we could not get the US Government to accept and use the productivity improvements that we routinely used. We offered the US Navy a robotic repair that took what conventionally took well in excess of 2000 hours to repair to 400 hours. This was not trying to use Cessna repairs on a fighter, two other very sophisticated countries used the robotic repairs on their Hornets.

    Simply put, our uniform military is hamstrung by blue collar union workers that ownsthe congressional depot caucus. Until this changes the military is going to own three airplanes to get one to fly..

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