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How F-22 Raptors gunned down a banner towed by a Cessna over Alaska

Alex DeMarban

A recent Air Force target practice involving the controversial F-22 Raptors sounds a little like the story of William Tell shooting an apple off his son's head.

An Anchorage pilot operating a Cessna 441 tows a 40-foot-long banner target and jet pilots shred it with seven-inch bullets from an M-61A2 Gatling-style rotary cannon, the U.S. Air Force said.

Granted, the banner is nearly a half-mile behind the Cessna. But the Raptor is the jet with the dubious oxygen system blamed for causing hypoxia-like symptoms in pilots, which contributed to the crash and death of pilot Capt. Jeff Haney near Healy.

Flying the Cessna sounds like a job you may not want. But the towing pilot, former Air Force Capt. Jerry Morris, said he's not frightened a bit.

"It's not a big deal," said Morris, a pilot with air charter Security Aviation of Anchorage. "I don't want to use the term boring, but it's certainly not exciting."  

He's done many of these so-called "banner shoots" over Alaska. This latest, from April 23-27, involved Raptors from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson's three F-22 fighter squadrons. Those are the 90th and 525th active-duty Fighter Squadrons and the 302nd Reserve squadron, according to the Air Force.

Target practice happened southwest of Big Delta in the Alaska Interior, Morris said. The Air Force described the shooting range as the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, a 65,000-square-mile air space near Eielson Air Force Base.

The jets fly at 12,000 to 14,000 feet. That's not high enough for hypoxia -- oxygen deprivation -- to be a threat, Morris said. The jets can't fire until Morris gives an OK over radio, indicated the sky is clear.

The Cessna and jets fly in circular patterns that minimize the risk any bullets will come Morris's way, he said. He's on the outside of the circle and the jets are on the inside, is how Morris described it.

"You don't feel it," he said of bullets striking the banner. "It's just cloth. Bullets go right through it."  

The Air Force press release acknowledged that Morris's work sounds risky. But it said measures are in place to ensure the Cessna pilots' safety. Namely, shooters don't point their cannons at the Cessna.

"I'm not worried about hitting the piloted tow airplane with rounds because we take necessary precautions not to point the gun toward the aircraft, only the banner that is being towed approximately 2,000 feet behind," said Maj. Jeremy Weihrich, an F-22 pilot with the 302nd, in a press release. "You have to remain aware of your surroundings and ensure the weapon is not pointed where it shouldn't be, very similar to a pistol or rifle gun range."

The week-long shoot went well, with a dozen jets flying daily in morning exercises. In each attack, four-jet teams of Raptors spat out more than 1,600 bullets in 100-round bursts, said Capt. Ashley Conner, a spokeswoman.

At the end of each morning, the Cessna dropped the banner at Donnelly Airfield, near Fairbanks, where a team picked them up for inspection. Determining each pilot's accuracy by looking at the banner is difficult because it's shredded, Conner said.

But pilots are able to live-track their bullets using a radar-based projection visible on visors, so they know if they hit their target, she said. The projections are recorded so they can be reviewed later.  

"All reports I got were it was successful," she said.  

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is home to about 40 of the pricey Raptors that are assigned to the two active-duty squadrons.  

As for the 302nd reserve Fighter Squadron, its lineage can be traced to the Tuskegee Airmen unit known as the Red Tails, said Conner. Created during World War II, the 302nd was one of only four African-American fighter squadrons to see combat during the war. The story of the Red Tails was brought to life on the big screen recently. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com

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