Bret Luedke flew most of the F-22 Raptor fleet, starting with Raptor 04 through Raptor 195 as a test and production pilot for Lockheed Martin. Luedke flew his “fini” flight in Raptor 195 on April 25, 2012. Below is his recollection of that flight.
How do you describe the last flight in an airplane that has been your life for the past 19 years? It is a flood of emotions, sensations and memories.
The unique, deep-throated rumble during engine start of the Pratt & Whitney F119 engines brings a sense of confidence and strength as they breathe life into the Raptor.
The multiple “deedle deedle” warning tones of the Caution and Warning system during engine start gives you a sense of assurance the Raptor is awaking as normal. Later, in flight, that same sound can bring an instant rush of adrenalin as you scan the cockpit to determine the severity of the malfunction.
Giving a friendly wave for the last time to the fire trucks, security guards and the Raptor Mobile truck brings a sense of sadness and a feeling of thanks for the hundreds of times they have patiently waited – just in case they were needed.
Lining up on the runway for that last takeoff, flashing back to the very first time you lined up on a similar runway more than 30 years ago for your first jet flight, and thinking in the next instant, “Please don’t let me screw this up.”
Once airborne, the feeling of pure enjoyment as the Raptor responds to your every whim. The smile that crosses your face and the sense of pride you feel in the hard work of everyone on the Raptor team as you hear the air traffic controllers ask passing traffic if they’ve ever seen a Raptor and call you out for a fleeting glimpse.
The chuckle you get when air traffic control asks you to give your “best rate of climb” or “best rate of descent” and then shortly thereafter asks what altitude you are passing because their radar can’t keep up with Raptor.
Sitting at Mach 1.5 and 44,000 feet with a feeling of quiet calm knowing the Raptor is at home here.
Rolling into an intercept, remembering the feeling of frustration of the F-16 pilot unable to find the Raptor, knowing it was out there, playing with you and getting ready to blow you out of the sky.
Enjoying the simple fun of watching the clouds go whizzing by as you maneuver around and over them marveling at their simple beauty.
As you come up initial for the last time, glancing over at “Trigger” tucked in tight on your wing and remembering the fighter pilot motto: “Better to die than look bad.”
As you are “beating up the pattern” for the last time, hoping all the folks out on the flight line are enjoying the heart pounding exhilaration that is the F-22 as you pull seven Gs in the closed pull-up and watch out of the corner of your eye the white vapor trails generated off the leading edges of the wings.
The sense of sadness you feel as you hear “Betty” say, “Bingo Bingo,” and you know the ride of your life has come to an end.
The pride you feel as you taxi back in for the last time looking at the smiling faces and waving hands of the people there on the flight line to celebrate with you, knowing that in some very small way you had a small part to play in nurturing and developing the F-22A Raptor into the unequaled master of the sky that it is.
That was my last flight in the Raptor.
Bret “Lowkey” Luedke