Two gray F-22 Raptor fighters circled over Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam yesterday, turning on a knife edge before touching down and pulling up to an appreciative crowd of more than 1,000 people assembled to greet a new era in Air Force capability and history here.
A dedication and blessing was held just after 9:30 a.m. with Gov. Linda Lingle, U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and military brass from Hawaii and Washington, D.C., in attendance.
"It’s an exciting time, surely, for Team Hickam," said Air Force four-star Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
Hula dancers commemorated the event, and extra-long maile lei were draped across the pointy noses of the jets after both taxied up to the historic base operations building at Hickam and turned to face one another.
Starting in January and continuing through 2011, 18 more of the Air Force’s premier fighter aircraft will be based at Hickam as a deterrent and offensive force.
Three of seven F-22 squadrons are being based in the Pacific — the other two are at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska — and the growing need for the advanced stealth fighter was put into perspective by more than one speaker.
Inouye said the Pacific "is now an area of major concern to our nation — it is an area that may have a potential for explosions."
"We know that the Pacific is a region at peace, but we have seen recent regional events where peace can be threatened by individual actions," said Gen. Gary L. North, commander of Pacific Air Forces headquartered at Hickam.
Although North did not specify those events, one example of recent instability was the March 26 sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan, in which 46 South Korean sailors died, reportedly as a result of a North Korean torpedo strike.
North said "near to peer" nations’ militaries are good and are getting better, but with the F-22 Raptor, the U.S. retains a technological edge in the skies over the Pacific.
In May the Air Force deployed 12 Raptors from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico to Kadena Air Base in Japan in the latest in a series of F-22 deployments from mainland units to Japan and Guam.
The stealthy and angular twin-tailed Raptor has a low radar signature, has thrust vectoring for maneuverability and can operate at speeds of more than 1,200 mph without using afterburners.
The Raptors will be "owned" by the Hawaii Air National Guard and flown by a combination of about 27 Air Guard and nine active-duty Air Force pilots in what is known as an associate unit, officials said.
Lt. Col. Christopher Faurot, a 1984 graduate of Damien Memorial School and commander of the Air Guard’s 199th Fighter Squadron, flew one of the single-seat F-22s out from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, where the approximately 7-year-old jets were receiving maintenance.
Lt. Col. Harvey Newton, who commands the active-duty 19th Fighter Squadron, flew the other plane into Hawaii. The planes arrived July 2 and on Wednesday.
Faurot, whose call sign is "Frenchy," said the six-hour flight required seven air refuelings with lots of "straight and level flying" and reduced speed so the fighters would not outpace refueling tankers.
Newton, 40, of New Orleans, likened the F-22 to driving a Lamborghini while other nations tool around in clunkers.
"We always want to have an advantage over our enemy, so what this F-22 gives us is an ability to take the fight to the enemy and reach out and touch him where he is at before he even knows we are there," Faurot said.
The Raptors will replace F-15 Eagles that have plied Oahu’s skies since 1987.
Hawaii Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Ben Nitta, a 1999 Mililani High School graduate and crew chief for the F-22, said, "It’s exciting to get the ball rolling on these jets."
When the full complement of 20 Raptors is in place, the jets likely will be deployed more than the F-15s are now, officials said.