Two F-22 pilots from the Virginia Air National Guard don't believe the F-22 is currently safe to fly, but the Air Force maintains that it is and it's sparing no effort to resolve an issue with the air that Raptor pilots breathe in flight.
—Michael C. Sirak
Both pilots—Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson—do not believe that the F-22 is currently safe to fly due to the still-unresolved issue with the aircraft's in-flight oxygen supply that has affected Raptor pilots' mental acuity and physiological performance in the cockpit in several dozen cases over the past several years.
They told their leadership in January that they didn’t want to fly the jet.
"I am not comfortable flying the F-22 right now," Gordon, a Raptor pilot for six years, told 60 Minutes.
"We grounded it for a reason, you know, back a year ago," added Wilson, who's been flying the F-22 for two years. "We haven't done a single thing to fix it. So I think we need to reassess why we got back in the air in the first place."
Gordon said he thinks "a vast majority" of Raptor pilots shares these concerns, "even though it's a silent majority" since other pilots are reluctant to come forward.
The Air Force maintains that the F-22 is safe to fly and it's sparing no effort to resolve the oxygen issue.
The service formed an enterprise-wide task force to identify the root cause of the oxygen issue and fix the problem once and for all, while maintaining combat capability, said service officials.
Plus, Air Combat Command has already made changes to the Raptor's cockpit to increase pilot safety, such as installing an improved handle for accessing the aircraft's emergency oxygen system more easily, adding a finger-mounted pulse oximeter for monitoring pilot blood oxygen, and updating software to enable better oxygen sensors, they said.
"The F-22 and the crews who fly and maintain it provide a critical capability to our nation, and we will continue to address the challenges in the F-22 program," Air Force headquarters spokesman Lt. Col. John Dorrian told the Daily Report May 7. He added, "Though we have not yet resolved the root cause of some physiological events, we have mitigated the risk of F-22 flight operations to a level where we can safely operate the F-22 while we continue the investigation to identify the root cause."
Gordon's and Wilson's boss, 192nd FW Commander Col. Thomas Wark, told the Daily Report on May 7 that the Virginia Air Guard "fully supports" ACC's position to continue F-22 flight operations while work continues to resolve the oxygen issue.
"We are confident in the safety measures that have been put in place, and the airmen of the 192nd Fighter Wing will continue to fly the F-22 Raptor," he said.
"We live in a community where risk is part of our lives," said ACC Commander Gen. Mike Hostage while discussing this issue during a briefing with reporters on April 30 at Langley-Eustis. "If we think the risk has gone to a level where we just can't accept it, we either reduce that risk or eliminate it. But right now, we believe that risk—although it's not as low as we would like it—is low enough to safely operate the airplane at the current tempo."
Hostage said he thought the Air Force was "making significant progress" toward resolving the issue. "I am confident we're going to get to a solution," he said.
Both Gordon and Wilson told 60 Minutes they think that the F-22 is a marvelous machine. But they've both experienced the hypoxia-like symptoms—akin to insufficient oxygen supply in flight—that Raptor pilots have reported in 25 instances. Eleven of those cases came after ACC cleared the F-22 fleet to return to flight last September after a five-month grounding.
They said their symptoms lingered for several days. They included: persistent coughing—which they referred to as "Raptor cough"—inability to breath deeply, vertigo, dizziness, mental fogginess, headaches, eye twitching, and even difficulty in holding objects. Wilson said he required two days of treatment in a hyperbaric chamber to get over his symptoms.
Gordon and Wilson came forward to air their concerns only after going to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who is an Air Force Reserve pilot, for protection from retaliation under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, according to 60 Minutes' narrative.
"Even in pilot training, you are taught that . . . if you feel something is unsafe, you have not just a right, but a responsibility to call it out," Kinzinger told 60 Minutes. He added, "If there are pilots that are concerned with their long-term safety . . . then I think they should be granted that leverage to not fly."
When asked if Gordon and Wilson would receive reprimands for going public with their concerns, Wark told the Daily Report that "it is not appropriate" to discuss details of military personnel actions.
"The Virginia Air National Guard is fully aware and supports the rights of military members under the Military Whistleblower Act and would not consider using disciplinary actions as a means of reprisal," he said.
He added: "Every pilot's concern regarding safety has been and will continue to be carefully considered and addressed to the maximum extent possible."
Dorrian noted that as of April 30, Raptor pilots had flown 12,409 sorties since F-22s returned to flight last September. The 11 instances of unexplained physiological events during that span represent "a 0.08 percent incident rate," he said.
ACC leadership, he continued, "has maintained consistent contact with F-22 pilots and involved them in the process of risk mitigation and fixing problems in the aircraft. The modified emergency oxygen handle is an example of this two-way communication."
Gordon told 60 Minutes he accepts that there is in inherent level of risk in flying the F-22, as with any aircraft. However, he said the oxygen issue "means there may be a point when I don't have control over myself when I'm flying," That's different, he asserted.
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