Given the recent allegations by F-22 Raptor pilots that the aircraft has potentially deadly oxygen-system problems, it’s not surprising that questions are also being raised about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—which has strikingly similar design elements. Lockheed Martin, which makes both aircrafts, has recently said that “the F-35 and F-22 have common aircraft oxygen system suppliers, but the systems are very different.”
But a ‘concerned’ POGO commenter asked us if there’s any chance the F-35 could have the same oxygen problems, anyways. Not content to simply parrot Lockheed’s answer, we decided to pose the question to two defense experts: Winslow Wheeler, the director of POGO's Straus Military Reform Project and Pierre Sprey, who co-designed the F-16 and A-10 jets.
You can read their full responses below, but the short answer is, there is still a lot more monitoring that needs to be done on the F-35 before Lockheed or the Air Force can conclusively say that the aircraft is safe (not to mention, the F-22—which very clearly appears to have problems—needs to be grounded until the oxygen malfunction is resolved.) The elite pilots who fly these planes deserve prompt, complete independent oversight.
Pierre Sprey says:
Given that all previous stealth aircrafts—the F-117, the B-2 and the F-22—have each shown evidence that their stealth coatings can be extremely toxic to production workers, pilots, and/or maintainers, it would be unconscionable for the Congressional Armed Services Committees and the Department of Defense (DoD) Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) to fail to demand an immediate, intensive toxicological monitoring of the F-35's stealth coatings.
Specifically, levels of all toxic components of the F-35's stealth materials that could be breathed by production workers, pilots and maintainers need to be meticulously, frequently, and accurately monitored on the production line, in the maintenance hangars, and in flight… Congress and the Director of OT&E should demand an unclassified report, within 4 months, of the quantitative results of this monitoring, together with an assessment of the potential long-term and short-term health effects on workers, pilots and maintainers by independent toxicologists from the Department of Health and Human Services, not from DoD.
Winslow Wheeler says:
There have been no public reports of it. Both the On-Board Oxygen Generating System and other suspects, like the stealth materials, have technical differences—they are not identical to what's in/on the F-22. It is something that should be closely monitored for the F-35. I doubt the Air Force or Lockheed will be forthcoming, and the pilots (test pilots both corporate and service) may also be less inclined to come forward than National Guard or active service pilots. It will be tough to get an independent view unless someone wakes up and demands a Government Accountability Office or Inspector General inquiry.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
U.S. Air Force image of a pilot in a F-22 cockpit by Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock.