Thursday, June 14, 2012

U.S. Stealth Jets Choking Pilots at Record Rates

U.S. Stealth Jets Choking Pilots at Record Rates:
An F-22 refuels during a training flight. Photo: Air Force
An F-22 refuels during a training flight. Photo: Air Force
The Air Force’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighters poison or suffocate their pilots nearly 27 times per 100,000 flight hours — a rate at least nine times higher than other fighters and far worse than anyone outside of the military previously realized. That shocking revelation comes from two lawmakers, Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who have been aggressively pursuing the cases of Air Force pilots that are getting choked on the job.
Despite the damning figures, the Pentagon insists that temporary measures — including altitude limits and revised flight suits — have made the $377-million-a-copy F-22 safe to fly. “Right now the aircraft is performing very well in an operational setting,” Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said last week. “We’re just going to continue to watch this as we move forward.”
Apparent oxygen shortages, or hypoxia, have plagued the high-flying Raptor for years, and may even have contributed to a fatal crash in Alaska in 2010. As more pilots and even ground crew began complaining of mysterious symptoms including blackouts, last year the Air Force grounded the approximately 180-strong Raptor fleet for four months so Lockheed Martin and Boeing, two of the plane’s manufacturers, could investigate the F-22′s systems.
The investigations did not definitively pinpoint the source of the Raptor’s problems. Impatient to put the F-22s back to work, the Air Force decided to add a charcoal filter to the onboard oxygen generator, and then ordered the roughly 200 Raptor pilots back into the air for an escalating series of training exercises and frontline deployments.
But the charcoal filter shed black dust into the pilots lungs, only compounding their symptoms. In early May two Virginia-based F-22 pilots, Capt. Josh Wilson and Maj. Jeremy Gordon, blew the whistle on the Air Force. Wilson and Gordon told 60 Minutes that a “vast, silent majority” of Raptor pilots believe the jet is unsafe to fly. They described rooms full of Raptor pilots coughing up black phlegm caused by the charcoal filters that were supposed to help save their lives.
Wilson, the younger and more active of the two pilots, was granted whistleblower protection under federal law. Nevertheless, the Air Force pressed forward with disciplinary action against Wilson, a move Kinzinger questions. “It only makes sense to me that the culture of the F-22 and the Air Force should be to reverse that disciplinary action,” Kinzinger tells Danger Room.

In the wake of Wilson’s and Gordon’s whistleblowing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the Air Force to step up its investigation while also restricting Raptor flights to lower altitudes and shorter distances from base. Panetta also directed the flying branch to accelerate the installation of a new back-up oxygen system. Meanwhile, the Air Force decided to change the F-22 pilots’ g-suits, on the theory that the compressive outfits, which squeeze blood towards the head, might be contributing to aviators’ breathlessness.
The Air Force is still groping for a solution as the evidence of the Raptor’s flaws mounts. Data the Air Force provided to Warner and Kinzinger show the F-22 experiencing 26.43 instances of hypoxia or “hypoxia-like” problems for every 100,000 flight hours, compared to 2.34 instances per 100,000 hours for the F-15E and 2.96 for the latest version of the F-16.
“This plane is not going to be part of our national defense if pilots: one, don’t feel safe; or two, they’re up there and not able to function because they can’t get appropriate oxygen,” Warner tells Danger Room.
Kinzinger says he has a message for F-22 crews as the controversy deepens: “If you see something, say something.” As Wilson’s case demonstrates, saying something can cost an F-22 pilot his job. But not saying something could cost him his life.

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