A veteran test pilot was killed Wednesday when an F-22 Raptor, an Air Force fighter plane designed to provide "air dominance" with its missiles and cannons, crashed in the high desert outside Edwards Air Force Base.
The pilot was identified as David Cooley, 49, a 21-year Air Force veteran who joined Lockheed Martin Corp., the plane's principal contractor, in 2003.
Cooley, of Palmdale, was pronounced dead at Victor Valley Community Hospital in Victorville.
The plane, assigned to the 411th Flight Test Squadron, crashed while it was on a test mission about 35 miles northeast of the sprawling base.
Air Force spokesman Vince King declined to reveal the purpose of the flight.
"Aircraft that fly at Edwards Air Force Base fly test missions to evaluate everything from airframe structures to propulsion and avionics and electronic warfare, all with the aim of ensuring weapons systems are suitable for their intended combat missions," King said.
In 2004, an F-22 crashed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, leading to a two-week grounding of all F-22s for a maintenance review. The pilot ejected safely. An Air Force investigation found no indication of a design or other systemic problem.
All military crashes are investigated for possible design, maintenance or pilot errors. A board of officers is investigating the F-22 crash.
At a cost of about $140 million, the Raptor is built to be virtually invisible to enemy radar and to fire air-to-air missiles. The plane reportedly can fly at twice the speed of sound, has "supercruise capability" and can fly without afterburners, allowing it to remain over a target longer without being detected.
Initially designed during the latter stages of the Cold War to allow the U.S. to defeat the air forces of the Soviet Union, the Raptor has been reconfigured to enhance its use to strike ground targets.
The Raptor formally joined the Air Force fleet in 2005 and was considered fully operational in 2007. Its boosters call it the world's most technologically advanced and easily maneuvered warplane.
Although the Raptor reportedly has not flown in Iraq or Afghanistan, some aerospace observers suggest that its stealth capability and armaments make it the ideal warplane to penetrate the S-300 air defense system that Russia is allegedly on the verge of selling to Iran.
"There is little doubt that the F-22 can neutralize the S-300," Thomas D. Crimmins, a national defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote this month. Crimmins is an Air Force lieutenant colonel and a pilot with 3,000 hours of flying time.
The Israeli government, increasingly worried about Iran's nuclear program, has shown interest in buying the F-22. But the plane is on the list of military hardware banned for foreign sales.
In the 1980s, the Air Force hoped to acquire 750 F-22s. So far, the federal government has committed to buy only 183, and debate in Congress and the Pentagon continues over the number needed, amid intense lobbying by Lockheed Martin.
Its critics claim the F-22 is too expensive and is a holdover from the Cold War that is struggling to find a mission. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been critical of some aspects of the F-22 program.
Although much about the F-22 remains secret, the Air Force has begun to take the plane to air shows to raise its public profile. Among those shows was the 2009 Thunder in the Desert Air Show last weekend at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.