While writing Resilience, I needed to estimate how much maintenance a shuttle might need after each hour of space flight. As a guide, I looked up maintenance requirements of US military jets and was floored.
Not my shuttle.
On average, a military jet needs 10-15 hours of maintenance for every hour that it flies. When the F-22 stealth fighter was approved for development, one of the requirements was that at “system maturity” (meaning 100,000 hours of flight time fleet-wide), the fighter would only require 12 direct maintenance hours for each hour of flight.
Then there’s the F-35. You might have heard of this as the most expensive military jet ever produced, which has been behind schedule (as in, two decades) and a boondoggle of epic proportions. In 2016, the most recent year I could find figures for, the F-35 required 42-50 maintenance hours per hour of flight. A ratio of 1:50 does not sound like much of a deal to me.
Upon emerging from my rabbit hole (after spending some time fascinated by the F-35 clusterfart — and take a look at the URL for that article; it’s hilarious), I decided not to specify a number for my space shuttle maintenance requirements — but I can’t imagine an advanced space exploration entity putting up with numbers like that! So all of that research work amounted to one paragraph of text in the book.
But I never consider research wasted. Here’s one thing that came out of it for me: I instantly understood what happened at Tyndall Air Force Base.
When Hurricane Michael swept over the Florida panhandle, its eye passed directly over Tyndall. The base — which had been evacuated beforehand — was a total loss. Photos taken afterward showed that a number of jets had been left behind, including some F-22s.
(Detail: according to the Air Force, these jets cost $143 million each, but that’s just the construction cost. Factor in R&D and other expenses and some Pentagon insiders say the per-unit cost is closer to $350 million.)
Tyndall housed a fleet of 55 F-22s, at least 33 of which were sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio for safety. That left 22 unaccounted for. The Air Force wouldn’t admit that any of them were still on base, but the photos and conclusions soon swept over the internet. Cue fits of outrage over the idea of the Air Force simply leaving these incredibly expensive jets to be destroyed. What incompetence!
F-22s tucked into a hangar at Tyndall Air Force Base to escape the wrath of Hurricane Michael. Photo by Staff Sergeant Matthew Lotz.
What most people (who aren’t aviation enthusiasts or science fiction writers doing research) don’t realize is that housing a fleet of 55 jets doesn’t mean that all 55 are flightworthy. Remember: 12 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time, and that’s assuming *normal* maintenance, not unexpected repairs or having to wait for parts to be shipped. In fact, an Air Force report found that in 2017, only 49% of the F-22 fleet was mission capable at any given time.
Those jets couldn’t be flown off the base. They had to be left behind, in the hopes that the hurricane wouldn’t cause billions of dollars of damage by wrecking a handful of them. (A little math fun: 22 jets at $350 million each is…$7.7 billion.)
Just a few days ago, the Dept. of Defense finally came out and said that the remaining F-22s on base will be flown out for repairs, “under their own power.”
It still wouldn’t admit how many jets had been left behind. However, the cat got out of the bag when Senator Rubio (of Florida) sent a letter to the Secretary of the Air Force, urging her to ask Congress for funds to repair all the damaged F-22s. The letter noted that “31 percent of F-22 aircraft at Tyndall Air Force Base were designated Non-Mission Capable (NMC) and were sheltered in place.”
31% of 55 equals a whopping 17 fighters left behind to survive the hurricane. Ouch.