Six F-22 fighter jets out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson are back home after four months flying patrols with NATO allies in central Europe. But two of the jets made an unplanned stop in Whitehorse on the way home, due to an engine problem.
JBER officials confirmed Tuesday that the six F-22 Raptors were deployed in August to an air base in Poland, where they took part in a so-called “shielding mission” to help train allied air forces and assist them in keeping the war in Ukraine from spilling over into NATO territory.
A base spokesperson said in written responses to questions that “The F-22s and personnel from JBER returned prior to the holidays, after completing their deployed assignment in Europe.”
The spokesperson said the F-22s were with the 3rd Wing’s 90th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and were accompanied by members of the 673rd Air Base Wing. The pilots and air crews forward-deployed from Lask Air Base in Poland to Norway, the Netherlands and Greece to protect NATO allies from air and missile threats.
The mission apparently went well until the last leg of the trip back to Alaska, when one of the F-22s developed an engine problem and made an emergency landing at the Erik Nielsen Whitehorse International Airport.
“I live on the flight path about 5 miles back from the end of the runway in Whitehorse, and I heard two jets go over,’ said Simon Blakesley, an aviation photographer and Canadian Air Force veteran who was editing photos on the evening of Dec. 13 when the F-22s arrived.
“I knew that they weren’t one of our aircraft,” he said. “It wasn’t a 737, it wasn’t an Air Canada aircraft. It was two fighters going over very quickly.”
Blakesley said in an interview Tuesday that he assumed they were Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornets that’ve set down on occasion at the Whitehorse airport in recent years. So he went there the next day to snap a few photos of the fighters.
“And as I pulled up to the airport to one of my photography vantage points, I thought no, those are F-22 Raptors,” he said. “So I was totally surprised they were here!”
It was the first time that the advanced fifth-generation fighters had landed at Whitehorse. A JBER spokesperson says the Air Force always requires a second plane to accompany one that’s making an emergency landing due to an engine problem. Blakesley said it was a treat for him and other local aviation buffs to see the fighters. He says they were even more excited a few days later to see a big cargo plane from JBER fly in.
“A United States Air Force C-17 arrived here, with equipment, maintenance crews, et cetera,” Blakesley said.
Whitehorse Daily Star reporter Ethan Lycan-Lang says all the activity at the airport caused a bit of a stir around town. “I think it’s a pretty rare occurrence, these two F-22s that landed,” says Lycan-Lang, who covered the U.S. planes’ unscheduled visit.
He said Tuesday the response of most area residents was more low-key.
“It didn’t make a huge impression on the general public,” he said. “But it did get a little bit of a response from people in the aviation community.”
Blakesley says that’s to be expected. He says most Yukoners, like Alaskans, share a strong interest in aviation, because we depend on aircraft to get around the vast expanses of the far north.
“There are certainly a number of people in Whitehorse, and similar I think to the Canadian north and in Alaska, where aviation takes on a particular prominence in our lives, either from transportation of goods, people, float planes, et cetera,” he said.
Blakesley said he was proud that the local aviation community was able to help the Americans fix the problem and get back home in time for Christmas. A JBER spokesperson said the Air Force appreciates the help, and added that the Canadians’ support was “nothing short of outstanding.”