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Update, 4/15:Â Defense Secretary Leon Panetta set new limits on F-22 flights, ordering that they stay within safe distance of a landing strips due to ongoing concerns about oxygen deficiency.
Last week, CBSâ 60 Minutes aired an interview with two of the pilots who are refusing to fly the jets. They will receive whistleblower protection, and not be reprimanded for speaking out.
TheÂ priceyÂ F-22 Raptor jet has just gotten back up in the air, but the safety problem that grounded it doesnât seem to be resolved.
Last year, the F-22 wasÂ grounded for four monthsÂ because pilots were experiencing dizziness and other symptoms of hypoxia, which is caused by a lack of oxygen. The Air Force looked into possible malfunctions in the plane’s oxygen-generation system, but in September, the planes were cleared for service after technicians wereÂ unable to pinpoint a source of the problem.
May 14, however, the Air Forceâs Air Combat CommandÂ confirmed that some pilotsÂ â they would specify only âa very smallâ number â have requested not to fly the F-22.
General Mike Hostage, who heads the Air Combat Command, said in a news briefing yesterday that the Air Force is taking cautionary measures but would continue to fly the planes. âWe donât have a conclusive answer yet, and thatâs why we continue to fly with the mitigating procedures, because I canât learn about the problem if I donât fly the airplane,â he said.
Since the planes started flying again in September, there have been more thanÂ 12,000 sorties and 11 reported instancesÂ of âhypoxia-like symptoms.â An Air Combat Command Center spokesman told ProPublica today that a team of two-dozen Air Force and outside specialists is monitoring the planes and pilots for both mechanical and medical problems regarding the hypoxia symptoms, but that no âroot causeâ has been determined.
Before the grounding, there had been at leastÂ 12 separate reportsÂ of hypoxia-like symptoms, and planes had been limited to flying at lower altitudes. In late 2010, an F-22 pilot died in a crash after he apparently lost control of the plane when the oxygen system malfunctioned. The Air ForceâsÂ official report on the incidentÂ acknowledged the oxygen system failure but blamed the pilotâs response for the crash.
AsÂ ProPublica has detailed, the roughlyÂ $70 billion F-22 programÂ has long experiencedÂ structural deficienciesÂ andÂ cost overruns. The U.S.Â halted ordersÂ of the jets in 2009, as then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arguedÂ the F-22′s specific capability was not widely applicable in the nation’s âspectrum of conflict.”
The planes have yet to be deployed in combat, though last week a number of them wereÂ reportedly sent to the United Arab Emirates.
Image Courtesy of By U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons