Lt. general: No retaliation against F-22 whistle-blowers
May 8th, 2012
11:05 PM ET

Lt. general: No retaliation against F-22 whistle-blowers

The Air Force won't take disciplinary action against pilots who’ve raised concerns about or refused to fly F-22 Raptors because of reports of cockpit oxygen deprivation, an Air Force official told a Senate panel Tuesday, saying they’re covered by a federal whistle-blower act.

The whistle-blower protection extends to two Virginia Air National Guard pilots who recently talked to CBS’s “60 Minutes” about their refusal to fly the stealth jets, Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

“My understanding is that … the chief and the secretary in the Air Force have issued direction that these individuals are protected and that no negative action be taken,” Wolfenbarger told U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts.

The Air Force has been looking into a number of reports that pilots experienced “hypoxia-like symptoms” aboard F-22s since April 2008. Hypoxia is oxygen deficiency.

Wolfenbarger told the subcommittee that 25 reports of hypoxia-like symptoms have been made, including 11 since September, when the service cleared the F-22 fleet to return to service after a four-month grounding for investigation.

The fleet was grounded in May 2011 so that the service could check the hypoxia reports, but the grounding was lifted in September under a “return to flight” plan, with equipment modifications and new rules including daily inspections of the life support systems.

Before the grounding, the jets were limited in January 2011 to altitudes under 25,000 feet because of an investigation into a November 2010 crash.

But the Air Force has yet to pinpoint a cause for the symptoms, prompting a few pilots to refuse to fly the jets, Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage, the head of the service’s Air Combat Command, told reporters earlier this month.

“Either it is an issue with a contaminant getting into the system, or it is an issue with not having enough oxygen coming to our pilots,” Wolfenbarger said Tuesday. “And there are a number of different things that we are reviewing for each of those different categories of root causes.” Part of the problem, she said, might be that pilots fly the F-22 at a higher altitude and execute maneuvers at higher G-forces than they do with other planes.

“I’m not ready to say yet that … we’re ready to declare root cause. But we do feel that we ... through all of those mitigation activities and through the training of the air crews, believe that we are safe to fly,” she told the Senate subcommittee.

Wolfenbarger said Tuesday that the service has implemented or planned to implement 17 steps to protect F-22 crews, including new emergency oxygen deployment handles and putting pulse oximeters on pilots’ fingers so that they can monitor their own oxygen levels and determine early whether they need to fly back to base.

Wolfenbarger stressed that combat commanders still want the plane, which currently is the service’s only next-generation aircraft. Hostage said this month that he didn’t think it was necessary to pull the jets, which he said had 12,000 sorties and 15,000 flight hours since the four-month grounding ended.

Last week, the Air Force received its 195th and final F-22 from Lockheed Martin, according to Jane's Defence Weekly. The publication said the new plane would join the Air Force's operational F-22 fleet of 187 aircraft.

May 7, 2012: Lockheed Martin launches Twitter offensive to defend maligned fighter jets

May 1, 2012: Some pilots won't fly F-22s

September 21, 2011: Air Force's F-22 back in service after 4-month grounding

May 5, 2011: Air Force grounds F-22s over oxygen system concerns

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Filed under: Military • U.S. Air Force
soundoff (156 Responses)
  1. MarkyGA

    An ABSOLUTE MIRACLE. It's really SHOCKING that these guys weren't blackballed. I'm having a hard time believing that the Beltway Bozos actually did something right for a change.

    May 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Karla

    The sad thing is that they need a Federal law to protect them for bringing up the issue. Even then, it sounds like the commanders had to do some research to see if they could take action and sounded disappointed that they couldn't.

    May 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. John1

    "Wolfenbarger told the subcommittee that 25 reports of hypoxia-like systems have been made, including 11 since September, when the service cleared the F-22 fleet to return to service after a four-month grounding for investigation"

    Don't you mean Symptoms? I don't think the planes are supposed to have hypoxia systems onboard ;)

    May 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. UncleJohn

    Open the O2 valve a little more?

    May 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sumo

      Brilliant! Problem solved! Someone give this guy a medal!

      May 9, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bvanman

      How about going back to the old o2 system? Get rid of the on board generation and stick to the good old lox bottle!

      May 9, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. CharlesPA

    Okay, so the oxygen system designed for F-22 Raptor is not working properly. I assume this is not a glaring problem with other fighters F-16, F-15, F-18... Why doesn't this occur at such a high rate in other fighter aircraft? What is the possibility of modifying a system used in another fighter and transferring it to the F-22? They could overhaul the entire fleet of F-22s and I don't buy the fact that it would become a budget issue to do so.

    May 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • deecee

      You obviously has never done anything that is related to aviation or remotely require any government certification. A modification of a critical system like an oxygen provision system on a plane will require the entire aircraft to re-enter its entire certification process. Anything related to flight, especially military craft would mean tend of millions if not hundreds of millions in redesign, test, verification and validation. On top of that, the cost to repair all the affected fleet, to state it's a budgetary issue is an understatement to say the least.
      From a technical perspective, you can't just simply jam one system from another plane into another, not so much as using rifle rounds in a pistol.

      May 9, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris M

      The OBOGS system in the F-22 is taken directly from the F-15 sir.

      May 9, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • NeoNeuro

      Previous fighter aircraft carried liquid oxygen (LOX). The F-22 has an oxygen generation system. In other words, it creates its own oxygen. As to why they switched from a proven system to something new, well, that will have to come from bigger minds than mine.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • admiralbrown

      The F-22 takes in air through its jet engine compressor and funnels the compressed air to the pilots breathing system. In theory an elegant solution as opposed to oxygen bottles or oxygen generators. The question is whether enough air is reaching the pilots at all times or if there is some contaminant being introduced into the air system poisoning the pilots. No one knows. The planes were but back into service in an attempt to hopefully identify and solve the problem.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • John N Florida

      The F-22 incorporates a completely new O2 system. The old systems aren't capable of being retro-fitted on to the aircraft.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • chris516

      This could be done. Because the military has done a mix-n-match before. I think the ejection seats in the F-22 are the same ones' used in the F-16.

      May 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rika33

    Not officially anyway

    May 9, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. NODAT1

    nice deliver a faulty product and still get paid. come up with 17 BS fixes to make the pilot feel safe and get even more money and lack of O2 is still a problem. I think its time to stop paying Lockheed

    May 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. ac

    "25 reports of hypoxia-like systems" ?? do you mean 'symptoms'?
    Apparently, we are flying w/out an editor today.....

    May 9, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • ajk68

      CNN seems to like to fly that way.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. MannyHM

    Heroism comes in many forms. This is one type of heroism doesn't striking the enemy however it saves lives of pilots, their own as well as others. These guys should be given medals. They put their careers on the line. We need people like them. It's one thing to die for the country, another thing to die for equipment malfunction.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. widow

    why not completely replace the system? I hear a lot of talk about the 200 million each plane is worth but what about the pilots? there lives alone are invaluable...then take into consideration all the training and fuel and wear and tear and that 200 million per plane reaches a billion pretty fast. I don't understand why they cannot completely rewrite the code for the o2 sensors and replace the o2 unit. it has been going on for years... they could have accomplished that in one year.. but instead they stuck with trying to fix the current system without knowing what is really wrong.. so do a complete overhall of the o2 system and move on...plus get moving we need that f35 asap

    May 9, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jt_flyer

    We'd better get the O2 fixed fast. The air show circuit is about to begin and where would we be without the F-22?

    Combat is another issue entirly. Even before the O2 issue this aircraft was a hanger queen.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. swimmer

    It is not just about these pilots not wanting to fly to protect their own skins or their co-pilots. I live near Langley and those jets fly over my house every day. I personally don't want that bird on my house when the pilot's symptoms get so bad he can't get back to base. We were lucky with the crash in VA Beach that no one was killed (Navy and not related to O2 issue). May not be that lucky the next time. My dad was a 20 yr Army veteran pilot and they risk their lives every day. No reason for them to be at increased risk because some AF CO or contractor can't or won't find the problem.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. ShaneB

    Seems like they could mount a dumb O2, and flow rate monitor in the line somewhere and do some tests.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Gary E

    When you really need a fighter, buy Lockheed – "You can get better but you can't pay more!"

    May 9, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Steve

    As a pilot myself, I can tell you that if these guys refused outright to fly, when a problem hasn't been clearly defined and can't be validated through checks, they would lose their right to fly the F-22 (or any other aircraft). A randomly-malfunctioning 02 system is not something that can be checked off in preflight, unless it is malfunctioning at the time. There are so many pilots that want to fly the F-22, anyone who refused outright to fly would quickly be replaced by someone who was willing to go ahead. The pilot community has a culture of one which you cannot raise too many red flags without being carefully looked over yourself. The random failure problem is a tricky one. If a pilot says, "That oxygen system isn't working. I've heard rumors it has problems. I won't fly" and then the ground crew checks the systems and finds no problems at the time, the pilot's motivations and fitness are called into question. In my own experience, a fellow pilot kept grounding his aircraft because the engines "vibrated too much". After about the third complaint on his part, he was grounded. He was moved from fighters to support aircraft. Though the Air Force states that these pilots are protected, notes will be made in their files, and their careers could take a negative hit.

    May 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Scott

      That probably has something to do with these being "Weapons" and the gov't needing "Warriors" wielding them. Not whinners refusing to fly because of some little problem... they want hard charging fire breathers that will fight the hard fight... WITH damaged equipment if need be. Wars and the battles in them are not only fought when everything is perfectly fine and your equipment is in tip top shape. Our fighter pilots during WWII flew planes into battle that ALREADY had holes in them before the shooting even started. Any pilot refusing to man his aircraft shouldn't be grounded... he should be shot.

      May 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
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