By DANA LIEBELSON
Two elite pilots that came forward to CBS's "60 Minutes" saying that they refuse to fly the F-22 Raptor because of potentially deadly oxygen-system problems have dramatically changed their positions, according to the Daily Press's HRMilitary.com. The pilots are claiming, through their attorney, that they are now willing to fly the aircraft because the Air Force recently removed a charcoal filter which may have been causing the health issues.
If you think this sounds fishy, you’re not the only one. There have been multiple reports that the Air Force appears to be attempting to intimidate the pilots who spoke out. The about-face shouldn’t quell growing evidence that an unknown problem or problems is making the F-22 too unsafe for pilots to fly. According to Air Force Times, the problems are even affecting maintainers who work on the plane.
The pilots, who despite the health allegations have consistently praised the F-22, should not be blamed for possibly fearing for their livelihoods and changing their public opinions. However, after multiple groundings, validated reports of pilot health and safety problems, a fatal crash due to a malfunction, and now these new reports—it’s time to say enough is enough. The F-22, which has yet to be used in a combat zone—like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya—should be grounded until we know exactly what’s causing the dangerous health and safety problems.
“This is a classic case of the Air Force putting hardware before people, and generals sacrificing pilots in order to avoid embarrassment” Pierre Sprey, who co-designed the F-16 and the A-10 jets, told POGO.
Lawmakers should ensure that the pilots who came forward are fully protected from reprisal now, as Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) has already done, to his great credit. They also owe these and other service members a much-needed upgrade of the laws that protect military whistleblowers, which lag far behind protections for civilian federal workers and many private sector employees.
As you may remember, the F-22 is the most expensive fighter jet (per unit) ever purchased by the U.S. government. Every hour an F-22 flies costs taxpayers around $63,929 (in years it is not grounded). The whole fleet cost $77.4 billion, or a casual $412 million per jet (in FY 2011 dollars). POGO has outlined the F-22’s cost and procurement problems for years. In 2010, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stopped procurement of the jet thanks to the gigantic cost of each F-22—a major victory for taxpayers.
The F-22 fleet was grounded twice in 2011 because of problems with the aircraft’s oxygen system. The grounding was lifted, but the cause was never determined. POGO’s Winslow Wheeler, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project said that “there was good reason to ground the fleet then—there’s even more of a reason now.”
According to Sprey, Navy Safety Center figures show that the incident rate of “hypoxia-like” symptoms has more than quadrupled since the last grounding was lifted. Hypoxia occurs when the brain can’t get enough oxygen, which leads to severe disorientation. F-22 pilot Josh Wilson told “60 Minutes” that he had such severe in-flight hypoxia, doctors put him in a hyperbaric chamber upon landing.
Pilot Jeremy Gordon told the program that among F-22 pilots, there’s a phenomenon called “the raptor cough”—where “the vast majority will be coughing a lot of the time.” Gordon also pointed to other latent problems pilots have: like vertigo and dizziness when they go to bed. These symptoms also suggest that the problem may go beyond simple oxygen deprivation; the possibility of toxins in the air system must be considered.
According to an ABC News report, the Air Force reported that there have been at least 25 cases since 2008 of F-22 pilots experiencing various symptoms. Additionally, the deadly crash that occurred in November 2010 during a training exercise in Alaska has been attributed to a malfunction in the jet’s On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS).
So what’s depriving these pilots of oxygen? That’s the problem—no one knows. Sprey hypothesizes that: “[The fact that] so many F-22 pilots have persistent coughing and vertigo means that, even though a small fraction of incidents could be due to oxygen deprivation or carbon monoxide, most of the F-22 incidents have to be due to some toxin in the F-22 breathing air supply that has persistent after effects and that is NOT present in other OBOGS, such as the F-18's air supply.”
Some of these toxins could be hydraulic fluid, combustion byproducts, off-gassing glues, overheated plastics or composites—or what Sprey believes to be the most likely candidate—stealth coatings, which are “freshly reapplied on the F-22 all the time.”
That’s one possible explanation, but ultimately, the cause has yet to be determined.
And while the Air Force is definitely implementing safety measures and claiming that it’s addressing concerns, it’s doing so while keeping the pilots in the planes—and it doesn’t know how or when the problem occurs or how long it’s going to take to figure it out.
"I believe we are making significant progress toward an answer," said Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command, in a statement. "I don't want to characterize how far or when because I don't own the progress of science."
It should be reiterated that in order to fly an F-22, pilots have to be the best of the best, with superb pilot skills, command of the highly complex flying and avionics systems, and unwavering dedication. But of those 200 top pilots certified to fly the jet, there are several beyond just Major Jeremy Gordon and Captain Josh Wilson who have silently expressed their profound concern by taking out additional life insurance for fear of the aircraft being their undoing.
The F-22 program should never have been allowed to come to this. It’s time to stop holding the aircraft above its pilots—the F-22 should be grounded now and for as long as it takes to understand and fix the problem. It’s non-appearance in war makes this a task we can clearly take.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Image via @AbsolutSpaceGuy.