7th Fighter Squadron pilot returns to flight

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman DeAndre Curtiss
  • 49th Wing Public Affairs
The road to recovery from back surgery can vary depending on the type of surgery and your lifestyle you are returning to. For minimally invasive spine surgery the total recovery time is fast, some as little as two weeks, which means patients are able to return to normal activities like jogging, swimming, and hiking in a short amount of time. But what if your normal activity is flying an F-22 Raptor traveling speeds in excess of mach two?

This is the story of Maj. Ryan Graf, 7th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations, after his first flight in an operational F-22 since his back surgery Aug. 27, 2012.

"This has been a very long and frustrating process," said Graf. "The frustrating part of all of this was the length of time required to wait between my nearly 40 appointments, the TriCare approval process, and many errors and delays in the paperwork process."

Graf, who has been a fighter pilot since January 2005, is qualified in the F-22 and T-38 Talon. He arrived at Holloman AFB in 2009 after being assigned to the 19th Fighter Squadron as an F-15C Strike Eagle pilot and 90th Fighter Squadron as an F-22 pilot at Elmendorf Air Force Base, AK He learned to fly the F-22 in January 2008.

Graf was first put on Duties Not Involving Flying (DNIF) because of extreme radiating pain in his leg due to bulging discs in his lower back. The DNIF period started with rest and pain killing/anti-inflammatory medication. After this did not help, the next step was 1.5 months of non-invasive physical therapy techniques including stretching, traction, and electro-stimulation. After physical therapy resulted in no improvement, he received a steroid injection in the L5-S1 lumbar disc in an attempt to reduce the painful effects of the bulging disc. After the injection didn't achieve tangible results, Graf elected to receive surgery by Dr. Choll Kim, a back surgeon in San Diego, Calif.

"One of the most gratifying aspects of working with Dr. Kim is how he has the utmost concern for his patients; unlike other doctors I've seen that treat you like a number," said Graf.

Two weeks after surgery, Graf was able to return to work at the 7th FS and eventually began physical therapy. Though he felt fully recovered two months after his surgery, this type of procedure requires a medical waiver for pilots to return to flying status. The waiver requires a three-month minimum wait time post-surgery before a waiver can be submitted to higher headquarters. The entire process was completed just in time to avoid Graf having to enter a formal F-22 requalification course at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

When speaking about his first flight back and what it meant to him, Graf thanked those closest to him.

"I could not have done any of this without the impressive support from my wife, Erin, and my family," said Graf. "Three months, three weeks after surgery, I'm back in the cockpit and feel great. The first flight resulted in no painful effects, even after experiencing high G-forces."

After a 191-day process that exhausted every possible medical treatment option, Graf is finally back where he belongs, serving our nation in the sky and he wouldn't trade it for anything.

"Being a fighter pilot is a career path unlike any other, in which not only is it very rewarding, but the support network and camaraderie from other squadron pilots is second to none."