Pioneer African-American Air Force F-22 Raptor pilot aims to inspire
Paul Lopez treasures his childhood memories of American fighter jets roaring over his family’s home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“I would see the F-14 Tomcats or the F-18 Hornets and I always wondered what it would be like to sit in that cockpit, flying in formation,” says Lopez, the first African-American pilot of the Air Force F-22 Demonstration Team. “That’s kind of where the passion started for me.”
Maj. Paul Lopez II — whose Air Force call sign is “Loco” — flies the intimidating F-22 Raptor, the stealthy, formidable Air Force fighter jet designed for both air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
Thundering across the sky at airshows in places like Australia, Chile and Canada — and Oct. 13 and 14 at Georgia’s Atlanta Air Show — the team is on a mission to demonstrate the aerobatic prowess of the Raptor, while providing a bit of Air Force public relations.
Every year the Air Force F-22 Demonstration Team performs at dozens of shows in front of an estimated 10 million spectators.
Military demonstration squads like the F-22 team, along with the Navy’s Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds, attract big crowds for the airshow industry, which holds at least 325 shows annually in the US and Canada alone, according to the International Council of Air Shows. It’s a business that pulls in about $110 million annually.
For the unfamiliar, the plane Lopez flies is among the world’s most technologically advanced fighter jets. The F-22 has sophisticated stealth, aerodynamic and on-board computer systems that set it apart from any other.
In fact, F-22 tech is so secret, the Air Force doesn’t allow photos or video to be taken of the F-22 cockpit.
For national security reasons, US federal law prohibits selling F-22s to other nations.
With a top speed of about 1,500 mph, this plane is the first American jet with “supercruise” — meaning it can fly faster than the speed of sound for long periods of time without using the engines’ fuel-guzzling afterburners. Afterburners inject fuel into the back end of a jet engine exhaust flow, creating more power and burning a lot of fuel.
Oftentimes, the F-22 is sent to intercept Russian bombers when they get a little too close to US air space.
Although Lockheed Martin stopped making the Raptor in 2011, a few years later members of Congress were calling for it to go back into production. The cost of ramping up factories put that idea to rest.
“It’s humbling,” Lopez says, to be chosen as the first African-American pilot for the F-22 Demonstration Team, which started in 2007.
“I stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s a testament to how the Air Force values diversity. If you look across the board at all the demo teams, you have individuals from various and diverse backgrounds coming together to showcase air power.”
The Air Force has been trying to increase diversity for a while now.
African-Americans make up only 1.7% of all Air Force pilots, according to the Air Force.
Although a 2014 RAND Corporation report said minorities and women officers — including pilots — have increased significantly during the past two decades, the numbers are still below representation in the general US population.
“If the Air Force wants to draw in more minority youth, either selection criteria need to change or the Air Force will need to focus on outreach and recruiting strategies,” the report said.
Outreach, Lopez says, is one of his missions. “That’s the most important part of the job,” he says. The Air Force is always looking for talented young people, and airshows draw those who are interested in aviation.
“In order to get a diverse pool of individuals interested in flying, what would help is more exposure to resources. Many times, there are young people who want to fly airplanes that don’t have the resources to pay for flight training,” says Lopez. “If there were more opportunities out there that were promoted and made available, you would get more people flying.”
Goals and dreams
When Lopez was growing up, his father served in the Navy. His parents noticed their son’s passion for aviation and encouraged it. They started taking him to airshows and buying him books about aviation and space.
Soon, Lopez set his sights on college. While earning a degree at North Carolina A&T State University, Lopez joined the Air Force ROTC.
“I let people know what my goals and dreams were, and they helped me out toward putting me in the right position to posture me to get a pilot slot,” Lopez says. “I worked hard and now, here I am, living my dream.”
At the Atlanta Air Show, Lopez expects to show off several aspects of the Raptor’s capabilities, including tight turns, low passes, loops, rolls and breathtaking vertical climbs.
The F-22 team also takes part in Heritage Flights — an airshow event that combines Lopez’s F-22 with vintage warbirds like World War II-era P-51 Mustangs or P-40 Warhawks.
It’s going to be a busy weekend. In addition to the Atlanta Air Show at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Lopez and the team’s ground crew are scheduled to perform at a second airshow — Wings Over North Georgia — about 100 miles away near Rome, Georgia.
To be able to perform at both airshows on the same days, Lopez and the team will use runway and fueling facilities at Dobbins Air Reserve Base located between the two shows.
Later this year, the team will be appearing at shows at Virginia’s Joint Base Langley-Eustis and Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
“Personally, the thing I love most about flying is the feeling of freedom it gives me,” Lopez says. “But it’s important to remember the teamwork that goes on behind the scenes that keeps the airplanes flying.”