Smiths Staffs Get To Fly Raptor

May 21, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Just over 100 employees at Smiths Aerospace Electronic Systems on Patterson Avenue work in the firm’s portion of the Air Force’s F-22 Raptor development contract.

Smiths’ participation probably would be far more extensive were it not for the fact that the company is British. The F-22 entails so many secrets that federal law requires most of its suppliers for now to be American.

But as modest as the F-22 program is at Smiths, it is sufficiently critical for Lockheed Martin, the main contractor, to take the Grand Rapids employees’ morale into account.

Spokesmen for the contractor and Smiths noted that big aerospace contracts involve thousands of projects in hundreds of plants across the country. In fact, the work is so dispersed that workers usually have only an ants-eye view of what’s going on and little idea of how their work fits in the scheme of things.

Hence, Lockheed Martin — now wrapping up development of the new fighter-bomber — sends its F-22 cockpit simulator to suppliers so that employees can spend time in the virtual cockpit and get a look at the big picture.

Smiths’ pieces of the big puzzle are a set of ugly door-openers called actuators, plus rather featureless bone-colored boxes called the power distribution and control system.

Without Smiths’ electrical system, the F-22’s powerful computer is useless and it can neither fight nor fly.

And without the actuators to snap its missile bays open and shut at high speed, the plane loses stealth and becomes vulnerable.

Lockheed Martin claims the F-22 is a giant leap, not just an incremental improvement, in aerial technology. They claim the plane can outperform anything flying and that it’s so stealthy it has the radar cross-section of a honeybee.

Just as important to the Air Force is that the plane’s super computer frees pilots of most flying tasks. It has a combat system with a Nintendo-style joystick that can attack targets on the ground and in the air simultaneously.

“I never thought I’d say this,” said Buzz Buzze, an Air Force veteran of Phantom and F-15 jets, “but, for this plane, you really do need training with computer games.”

The aircraft’s radar and computer show the pilot red, green and yellow blips on his cockpit window for enemy, friendly and unknown aircraft, respectively, far beyond his visual range.

He uses a joystick to place a cursor on a red or yellow blip and the computer takes it from there.

If the yellow blip turns out to be an enemy (don’t ask how, that’s classified), the computer commands a set of Smiths actuators to snap open a missile bay. It kicks out the missile, slams the bay shut before stealth is lost, fires the missile and then puts the plane on a new path for a new target.

At 35,000 feet — where the air temperature can be 30 below zero — none of this works without Smiths’ electronics, storage batteries and battery chargers that can function at even lower temps.

Smiths Aerospace Electronic Systems has another plant in Clearwater, Fla. Other Smiths Aerospace divisions supplying the F-22 project are located in Washington, New Jersey, Maryland and Connecticut.

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