By ANDRE FRANCISCO
It sounds like the F-22s are coming back, but that doesn't mean the Air Force has determined what caused pilots to return from flying with antifreeze in their blood and propane in their lungs.
Defense News is reporting that the four-month grounding of the F-22 fleet will soon be lifted and that a meeting scheduled last Friday would determine if there would be any restrictions that remain on the Raptors.
The fleet was grounded because of pilots reporting symptoms of hypoxia, which is a loss of oxygen that results in decreased brain function. The effects were serious enough that pilots were skimming the tops of trees while landing and forgetting how to use their radio.
Some people initially thought that a malfunction with the On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) was the root of the problem, and there were also questions about whether running the Raptors’ engines indoors before flights might have been causing chemicals to get into the pilots’ air supply.
As Defense News reports, the OBOGS problem hasn’t been solved, but the Raptors will no longer be running their engines indoors. An unnamed source told Defense News that the risks had been mitigated enough to allow the F-22s to fly.
Initially the OBOGS were also suspected in a fatal November 2010 crash in Alaska of an F-22. But now that the snows have cleared and investigators were able to get to the crash site, they have determined that oxygen problems did not cause the crash. The cause of the crash has not been released.
The Defense News story said bad press may be one explanation for why the Raptors will be returning to the air before all the problems are fixed:
The service is also responding to media coverage of the grounding, which has prevented the planes, among other things, from participating in the NATO campaign against Libyan government forces.
"Mainly, they have pressure to fly the jet to stop the bad press about the $100-plus- million static displays," the source said.
Averting bad press seems like a strange reason to take the F-22s back to the skies, especially when the Air Force has yet to resolve questions about the oxygen system. The Air Force is right in thinking that it looks bad to have $350 million aircraft sitting in the hangar while the U.S. is engaged abroad. But wouldn't it look worse if we lost a plane or a pilot because the Air Force failed to fully address these issues?
Andre Francisco is a POGO communications associate
Image via Flickr user Mr. T in DC.