The most powerful hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle in half a century didn’t just tear through the Sunshine State; it also may have damaged or destroyed as many as 17 F-22 Raptors, a prized stealth fighter jet fleet stored in hangars at Panama City's Tyndall Air Force Base. There are currently 183 F-22s in the government’s inventory, which means close to 10 percent of the U.S.’s F-22 jet fleet may have been damaged by Hurricane Michael.
The Air Force has yet to confirm that number or the extent of the damage, but reports indicate at least some jets were affected. According to the Air Force Times, most of the base's 55 jets were evacuated but some were left behind for maintenance or safety reasons. Lara Seligman, a reporter for Foreign Policy, and the Free Beacon both report as many as 17 jets were on the base and damaged or destroyed during the storm.
Maj. Malinda Singleton, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, would not disclose the extent of the damage or the number of jets that may have been damaged, but confirmed to VICE News that none have been destroyed.
"We're still working through the damage but we believe at this time that they are all repairable," Singleton said.
According to some estimates, each jet could be worth as much as $377 million, a number that includes the cost of research and development, though the U.S. Air Force reports the jets cost only $143 million per unit.
Despite the devastating Category 4 hurricane, the hangars and Tyndall Air Force Base weathered the storm “all intact and looked much better than expected considering the surrounding damage to some structures,” Air Force secretary Heather Wilson said in a joint statement posted to Facebook on Sunday.
Still, the drone runway at Tyndall sustained catastrophic damage, and its marina was completely destroyed, according to the Air Force Times. Damage to the hangars is also impacting access to the fighter jets, but Wilson said it wasn’t as bad as they’d feared.
“Our maintenance professionals will do a detailed assessment of the F-22 Raptors and other aircraft before we can say with certainty that damaged aircraft can be repaired and sent back into the skies. However, damage was less than we feared and preliminary indications are promising,” Wilson said.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, along with U.S. Rep Neal Dunn, have written to Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to express their support in rebuilding the Air Force base, according to the Florida News Service. The base is critically located near the Air Force Eastern Gulf Test and Training Range, the largest testing and training range for the U.S. military, according to Nelson.
Jets aside, the base is also currently without 11,000 employees, all of whom were ordered to evacuate last week, according to the Air Force Times.
Cover image: IN FLIGHT, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: The F/A 22 Raptor flies past Tyndall Air Force Base September 26, 2003 in Florida. Tyndall Air Force Base will be the home base and training center for approximately 48 new Raptors, according to the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The jet, which is produced by Lockheed Martin has stealth capabilities and is the newest addition to the USAF arsenal. (Photo by Michael Ammons/USAF via Getty Images)