By DANA LIEBELSON
Pilots flying America's most expensive fighter jet are suffering from mysterious health problems, and the Pentagon can’t explain why. The Air Force suggested last month that pressure vests worn by the pilots might be interfering with their ability to fly the plane, so it made the pilots remove them. But last week, an aviator flying the F-22 Raptor suffered another emergency, The New York Times reported.
When Air Force officials brought a reporter to an airfield in Virginia to observe an F-22 takeoff, a pilot not wearing a vest “pulled his emergency oxygen handle sometime after landing because of what the Air Force characterized as ‘discomfort’ from intermittent air flow into the pilot’s mask during flight,” The Times said.
Last month, concerns about the safety of the stealth fighter prompted two pilots to go on “60 Minutes,” the CBS news show, and explain why they refused to fly the F-22.
In November 2010, F-22 pilot Capt. Jeff Haney died during a training exercise in Alaska after his jet crashed. The Air Force initially blamed the crash on the pilot—but found that a malfunction in the jet caused "severe, restrictive breathing."
According to lawmakers probing the problem, the rate of hypoxia or hypoxia-like symptoms—which manifest as severe disorientation—is much higher among F-22 pilots than among pilots of other U.S. military aircraft.
Last month, the Air Force hinted that it was close to solving the mystery, and it pointed to the pressure vest as a possible culprit.
“Testing has determined that the upper pressure garment increases the difficulty of pilot breathing under certain circumstances” Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command, told Bloomberg.
Pressure vests protect pilots from G forces, so while the Air Force investigates the problems, pilots are prohibited from flying above 44,000 feet. Even if the vests are the answer to the mystery, removing them doesn’t solve the problem, because in combat pilots would presumably have to fly above that altitude.
“Flying without the vest is, at best, a temporary fix,” said POGO National Security Investigator Ben Freeman. “Flying without it keeps the planes in the air, so investigators can continue to search” for the cause or causes.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.