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.