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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 doesnâ€™t 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 Forceâ€™s Air Combat CommandÂ confirmed that some pilotsÂ â€” they would specify only â€śa very smallâ€ť 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. â€śWe donâ€™t have a conclusive answer yet, and thatâ€™s why we continue to fly with the mitigating procedures, because I canâ€™t learn about the problem if I donâ€™t fly the airplane,â€ť he said.
Since the planes started flying again in September, there have been more thanÂ 12,000 sorties and 11 reported instancesÂ of â€śhypoxia-like symptoms.â€ť 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 â€śroot causeâ€ť 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 Forceâ€™sÂ official report on the incidentÂ acknowledged the oxygen system failure but blamed the pilotâ€™s 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 â€śspectrum 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