The Air Force late last month convened a summit in Ohio to address the most vexing problem of its premier jet fighter — pilots becoming dizzy from oxygen deprivation while flying the supersonic F-22 Raptor.
Scientists, manufacturers and Raptor pilots at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base brainstormed on why aviators — 25 to date — are returning from missions suffering from hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation.
"It was an update on where we were at," said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for the Air Force Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base. "We're kind of closing in on some ideas."
The Air Force hopes information-sharing, such as the April 26 Wright-Patterson summit, will show the 200 Raptor pilots, support crews and families that everything possible is being done.
For two pilots, the strategy didn't work. Dressed in flight suits, the two Virginia Air National Guard pilots engineered an embarrassing event for the Air Force: They appeared Sunday on CBS' "60 Minutes."
Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson said they suffered severe cases of hypoxia and refused to fly the F-22 in January. Capt. Wilson has been reprimanded.
"I am not comfortable flying in the F-22 right now," Maj. Gordon said.
"In a room full of F-22 pilots, the vast majority will be coughing a lot of the times," he said. "Other things, [such as lying] down for bed at night after flying and getting just the spinning-room feeling, dizziness, tumbling, vertigo kind of stuff."
Veteran aviators cannot recall active-duty pilots ever going on national TV to knock the military aircraft they fly, much less the Air Force's $79 billion crown jewel.
"I think it's a shame," said retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, the service's chief of staff in the early 1990s. "They must be planning on getting out of the Air Force and running for Congress, because that's not the way professionals would deal with this problem. I would invite them to try a different plane — an airliner."
Gen. McPeak is one of the F-22's founding fathers. He helped write the requirements for what would become a stealthy air-superiority jet that would fly higher and accelerate faster than any previous fighter.
As chief, he made an important change by ordering manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. to add a bomb bay to give it not just air-to-air lethality but also air-to-ground capability to strike air defenses.
"Unless we had an air-to-ground munitions capability that really made it a dual-role fighter, it wouldn't have survived congressional scrutiny," Gen. McPeak said. "I'm a strong volunteer to fly the airplane myself."
Some retired top brass blame the chain of command, from the Guard unit up to Air Combat Command, for letting the two pilots' complaints evolve into a national TV spectacle.
"If all that were in my chain of command, there would be some heads rolling somewhere," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Link. "Pilots shouldn't have to go to congressmen and get whistleblower protection in order to get relief from some kind of problem. It just shouldn't happen. There's a chain-of-accountability breakdown there somewhere."
Retired Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerney, who logged 4,000 flying hours in fighters in Vietnam and other venues, offered blunt advice: "The Air Force has a problem, and they should not ground pilots or reprimand them. The Air Force should fix the problem."
The 'Raptor cough'
The Air Force says the 25 cases of pilot hypoxia, the most frequent for any fighter aircraft, stems from one of two problems: Either the onboard oxygen generation system is not providing sufficient air or the air itself is contaminated.
Until technicians figure it out, Gen. McInerney said, the Air Force should employ the Vietnam-era system of installing oxygen bottles in the cockpit and "get rid of the [oxygen generation] system, which is the problem."
Col. Sholtis said the Air Force has discussed using oxygen bottles but has not made a final decision. What it has tried to do, after the plane was grounded for five months last year, is make the F-22 safer.
"We instituted a number of measures designed to protect our pilots, ensure the safe completion of operations and assess the possible physiological effects of flying the aircraft," he said.
Those include conducting blood and pulmonary-function tests and providing each pilot with an in-flight pulse oximeter, which monitors the amount of oxygen in the blood.
The service also installed activated carbon C2A1 filters to trap any contaminants moving through the oxygen-generating machine into the pilots' throats and lungs.
That created another problem: Carbon dust leaked into the hoses and, according to CBS, into pilots' throats, causing what pilots have dubbed the "Raptor cough."
Col. Sholtis said the dust has been used in air and water systems for years "without any significant evidence of harm."
He said 30 throat swabs were taken from pilots and no carbon was found. An analysis of more than 500 filters showed "no significant levels of contaminants."
The service discontinued the filters and is installing contaminant sensors to monitor the air hoses.
Pilot error or cover-up?
The Nov. 16, 2010, crash of an F-22 Raptor that killed pilot Capt. Jeffrey Haney involved a lack of oxygen in the cockpit.
The Air Force's official accident investigation said the plane's bleed air intake, which is used to generate power, malfunctioned and caused the oxygen-generating system to shut down.
The report blamed Haney for the crash for not quickly activating the emergency oxygen system and recovering from a dive. The investigation said the onboard oxygen generation system did not malfunction.
"Due to the high affinity of oxygen to hemoglobin, [Haney] would have had adequate blood oxygen supply after the [system] failed," the report states, according to the Air Force Times.
"It was concluded that the late recognition of the [Raptor's] unusual altitude and appropriate corrective actions attempted by [Capt. Haney] demonstrates that hypoxia was not a factor in this mishap."
Capt. Haney's family charges that the Air Force is protecting its multibillion-dollar fighter by blaming the pilot when the real culprit was the F-22 itself.
"I'd like to think it's easier to blame Jeff. He's not here to defend himself," Jennifer Haney, his sister, told ABC News. "To them, Jeff was a number, it feels like sometimes. But those jets are worth a lot of money.
"I don't agree with [the Air Force]. I think there was a lot more going on inside that cockpit," she said. "A cover-up? I don't know. But there's something."
The Pentagon's inspector general is investigating how the Air Force Accident Investigation Board reached its conclusion of pilot error.
Ironically, when Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, appeared before a congressional committee in March, he maintained that the service was not blaming the pilot — while, in fact, the accident report did just that.
A troubled chronology
Until the Air Force solves the F-22 mystery, the investigation and outreach to pilots continue.
"We've conducted road shows where we have gone out to each Raptor base and conducted town-hall meetings where we talk about what's going on, take their questions, address their concerns," Col. Sholtis said.
"There are biweekly video teleconferences. All the unit commanders are updated on what's being done to advance the root-cause analysis."
The F-22's founders 20 years ago could not have predicted the aircraft's spotty chronology.
It was declared operational in 2005 but never deployed to prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where air power was used extensively.
The Air Force wanted at least 243 F-22s, but, as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates capped the purchase at 187. The last plane was delivered recently.
The Raptor took another hit this month when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC News that the F-22, pegged at $400 million a copy, has no mission in today's conflicts.
"There is no purpose, no mission in Afghanistan or Iraq, unless you believe that al Qaeda is going to have a fleet of aircraft," said Mr. McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot.
F-22 backers disagree, saying a conflict with China's growing air force or strikes on Iran would fit the plane's ability to penetrate defended airspace to drop bombs and to out-dogfight any enemy fighter.
In fact, the Pentagon for the first time deployed F-22s to a potential war theater: The planes flew to the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally across the Persian Gulf from bellicose Iran.
Col. Sholtis said the final answer to F-22 pilots' high rate of hypoxia may be the plane's unique performance.
"We've got normally healthy pilots who go up, fly a mission, experience some kind of physiological symptoms, come back, and after a period of time, those symptoms go away," he said.
"The approach now is more holistic. We are not just talking about the machine. We're talking about how that machine interacts with a human in the cockpit.
"In a particular operational environment, the relevant factors being high altitude, high gravitational forces, the normal things we ask this aircraft to do as part of its mission," the Air Force spokesman said.
As for Maj. Gordon and Capt. Wilson, Air Force Lt. Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, the military deputy for the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told a Senate committee this week that they are covered by the Military Whistleblower Protection Act and will not be punished for their unauthorized appearance on "60 Minutes."
Their attorney, Frederick M. Morgan, said his clients exhausted internal complaints and thus decided to go public.
"They made the choices they made because they felt it was not receiving attention internally that they felt was appropriate," Mr. Morgan told The Times. "It did not seem to them to be headed in the right direction. They simply exercised a statutory right to get the word out."
Both pilots stopped flying this year because of bouts of hypoxia and perceived side effects from the charcoal filters. Capt. Wilson was reprimanded for adhering to his doctor's recommendation that he not fly with the filter.
Mr. Morgan said Maj. Gordon has told the command that he is willing to resume flying "with close medical scrutiny and coordination with those evaluating the life-support system" now that the filter has been removed.
Asked what the two thought they accomplished by appearing on TV, Mr. Morgan said: "My fervent hope is the fix to the problem gets expedited even more than it was. We have no doubt the Air Force was working hard on it, but I think you can always work harder, and that's what we hope is happening."
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