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 Virgi...

Posted: Oct 11, 2018 1:51 PM
Updated: Oct 11, 2018 1:51 PM

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."

African Americans

Air shows

Aircraft

Armed forces

Aviation and aerospace industry

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Demographic groups

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Government organizations - US

Military

Military aircraft

Minority and ethnic groups

Population and demographics

Society

US Air Force

US Department of Defense

US federal departments and agencies

US federal government

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 October 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.

The Raptor

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.

Diversity

"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."

Showing off

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."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 92432

Reported Deaths: 2792
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds6931154
DeSoto535455
Harrison370771
Jackson335867
Madison319086
Rankin316174
Lee256166
Jones237678
Forrest231769
Washington216371
Lafayette205039
Lauderdale1990124
Bolivar177565
Oktibbeha174149
Lamar157733
Neshoba1529103
Panola142426
Sunflower139643
Lowndes138957
Warren137250
Leflore135380
Pontotoc121216
Pike120448
Monroe118265
Scott115925
Copiah115733
Coahoma111227
Holmes108558
Marshall107115
Grenada105035
Lincoln104953
Yazoo103529
Simpson100742
Union97724
Tate95037
Leake93735
Adams90936
Wayne87121
Pearl River85150
Marion83633
Prentiss80317
Covington79622
Alcorn76311
Newton75022
Itawamba74621
Tallahatchie74518
George74013
Winston72019
Tishomingo65336
Chickasaw64124
Attala64025
Tippah63716
Walthall59025
Clay56516
Hancock55720
Noxubee54015
Jasper53815
Clarke53138
Smith51814
Calhoun50612
Tunica47613
Montgomery45320
Claiborne45116
Lawrence42312
Yalobusha41514
Perry39417
Humphreys37215
Quitman3725
Stone34811
Greene33817
Webster32813
Jefferson Davis32311
Amite31110
Carroll31012
Wilkinson30117
Kemper28615
Sharkey26212
Jefferson2379
Benton2181
Franklin1873
Choctaw1775
Issaquena1033
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 128818

Reported Deaths: 2284
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson18772333
Mobile12975289
Montgomery8598173
Madison742275
Tuscaloosa7081114
Lee560359
Shelby557250
Baldwin503348
Marshall378442
Etowah330645
Calhoun324939
Morgan314226
Houston264422
Elmore249747
DeKalb232619
St. Clair219835
Walker219180
Talladega203426
Limestone194219
Cullman180817
Franklin173428
Dallas173226
Russell16922
Autauga166424
Lauderdale161633
Colbert158126
Escambia155424
Blount152714
Jackson148511
Chilton146327
Covington130327
Dale130043
Coffee12488
Pike11359
Tallapoosa112983
Chambers111742
Clarke104617
Marion92128
Butler90638
Barbour8247
Marengo69619
Winston68712
Lowndes64527
Pickens62814
Bibb61910
Hale61028
Randolph59112
Bullock58514
Lawrence57820
Monroe5738
Geneva5564
Cherokee54816
Washington54513
Perry5366
Clay5317
Wilcox53011
Crenshaw51931
Conecuh51711
Macon46720
Henry4594
Sumter41719
Fayette4159
Choctaw34412
Lamar3372
Cleburne3166
Greene30015
Coosa1603
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Broken Clouds
63° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 57°
Feels Like: 63°
Columbus
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 58°
Feels Like: 64°
Oxford
Few Clouds
61° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 61°
Starkville
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 63°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather