THE HYPOXIC RAPTOR By Henry M. Holden
THE F-22 Raptor is considered the most advanced and the world’s most expensive fighter jet, designed and built by Lockheed Martin Corp. According to the US Air Force, each aircraft costs $143- million. However, counting upgrades, research and development costs, the US Government Accountability Office estimates each F-22 costs taxpayers $412-million.
It entered service in 2005, and the Air Force received the last of its order of 187 copies in mid-May. Although supposedly combat-ready, it has never seen a mission in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya. The Raptors have sat idle, used only in test missions and at air shows.
It is also packed with ultra-secret cuttingedge radar and sensors, enabling a pilot to identify, track and shoot an enemy aircraft before that craft can detect the F-22. So why is it grounded – again? F-22 pilots have reported dozens of incidents over the years in which the jet’s oxygen systems were not feeding them enough oxygen, causing wooziness. This issue led to a five-month grounding of the entire F- 22 fleet in May 2011, but even after the grounding was lifted last September, the Air Force said investigators could not find the root cause.
The F-22 is packed with ultra-secret cutting-edge radar and sensors, enabling a pilot to identify, track and shoot an enemy aircraft before that craft can detect the F-22. A M61A2 cannon is mounted just above the
right wing root. To preserve the F-22’s stealthy characteristics, an inward opening door will cover the muzzle until weapon is fired. Photos: USAF and the author.
The Air Force has also confirmed that it ha.ds never seen such high rates of hypoxia in any other aircraft, with 36 of the 200 Raptor pilots reporting an incident, or 18 percent. In training, hypoxia or oxygen deprivation can lead pilots in that state to have trouble even identifying a playing card.
The issue, while public, did not get much press until May 6, when two F-22 pilots appeared with Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), also an air force reserve pilot, on CBS’ 60 Minutes programme to discuss reasons why they refused to fly the jet. At the risk of significant blow back from the Air Force command, or even discharge, Virginia Air National Guard Capt. Joshua Wilson, and Maj. Jeremy Gordon, said they would not fly the F- 22 until the oxygen problems were fixed. After the grounding of the aircraft in May, the Air Force put all F-22 pilots through retraining so they would know their own specific hypoxia symptoms. They also strapped a pulse oximeter to the pilots’ arms. It measures the amount of oxygen in the blood while they are in the cockpit.
The Air Force also added a high-efficiency particulate air filter consisting of activated carbon and charcoal. To make matters worse, some of the pilots began coughing up black sputum. USAF doctors dissected the oxygen hoses, found black residue, and determined that the new filters that were supposed to be protecting pilots, were shedding charcoal which was collecting in the pilot’s lungs. “We analysed it and found it to be activated carbon dust, an inert or non-reactive compound that has been used for air and water filtration for decades without any significant harm,” said an Air Force spokesman.
Although the investigation was still underway, the Air Force listed the F-22s as Code One and put it back in the air last September, even though, as Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz told Congress, the USAF still did not know what was wrong. But less than a month after the ‘planes began to fly again, another pilot suffered hypoxia. The Pentagon revealed there had been 14 of these events in the previous three years, a rate described by its own scientific advisory board as “unusually high...and unacceptable.” And, at least since November 2011, the Air Force has been investigating the on-board oxygen generation systems (OBOGS) aboard the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and other tactical aircraft and trainers.
Another Air Force spokesperson said: “A parallel investigation is taking place on the onboard oxygen generation systems on the A-10, F-15E, F-16, F-35 and T-6 aircraft,” In addition, the Air Force conducted throat swabs of F-22 pilots, and those indicated no evidence of harmful substances. Yet, pilots reported persistent coughing, which they call the “Raptor cough”. “Coughing is a natural physiologic response that serves to re-inflate the air sacs,” an Air Force spokesman said. So what caused them to deflate in the first place?
FEAR OF CRASHING
The F-22 pilots evidently have little confidence that it will keep them alive in routine flight, never mind combat. 60 Minutes interviewer, Leslie Stahl, asked Capt. Wilson: “I had heard that other pilots, because of their fears of crashing from their own vertigo, are taking out additional life insurance policies.” Wilson replied: “They are. Absolutely. We are waiting for something to happen. And if it happens, nobody’s going to be surprised. I think it’s a matter of time.” After Wilson’s incident, his symptoms were so severe the Air Force sent him to a hyperbaric chamber, the same kind used for treating the bends. According to Wilson: “We’ve had several cases. Even pilots who never had a physiological incident in the air had problems on the ground, in the days after they fly the plane.”
“In a room full of F-22 pilots, the vast majority will be coughing a lot of the time,” said Major Gordon. “Other things like laying down for bed at night after flying and getting just the spinning room feeling, dizziness, tumbling, vertigo kind of stuff.” According to Gordon: “The onset of this is insidious. Some pilots will go the entire mission, land, and not know anything went wrong. There was a publicly announced incident of a jet in Alaska hitting a tree and the pilot was not aware that he ran into a tree.” Throughout the jet’s development, F-22 pilots have been in seven serious crashes, resulting in two fatalities. Air Force sources said that an OBOGS malfunction was suspected in the November crash outside Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, that claimed the life of Capt. Jeff Haney of the 525th Fighter Squadron. Despite the known OBOGS incidents, the Air Force will not officially link the November crash to the oxygen generator malfunctions.
FOCUS ON THE O2 SYSTEMS
According to Wilson: “We’ve got two theories with the jet right now. On the one hand, we’re not getting the quality or the quantity of oxygen that we need. On the other hand, they’re thinking contaminants. Somehow we’re not getting what we need, or we’re getting poisoned.” “The Air Force’s investigation is led by a group of doctors, physiologists, analysts and engineers,” said Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon, the director of operations for ACC. “Investigators are looking at everything from flight gear to physical fitness scores of those affected.” So far, the investigation has failed to find a root cause, but has determined that pilots are either failing to get enough oxygen or are inhaling some type of contaminant; something the pilots have been telling them.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates each F-22 costs taxpayers $412- million. The F-22 Raptor is a fifth-generation stealth fighter. It carries air-to-air missiles in internal bays to avoid disrupting its stealth capability. Its speed is estimated to exceed Mach 2.
Then, on May 7, that changed. In an Air Force Times article that hit the newsstands that day, the ground crew maintainers grew sick after breathing in ambient air during ground engine runs. If the ground crew incidents continue, the problem’s source may be elsewhere. The F-22 maintainers who reported signs of oxygen deprivation were working inside the cockpit while the plane was on the ground.
IT USED TO BE THE CHAPLIN
If a military person had a major concern, in the past he usually went to the Chaplin, but even then he had to watch what he said. “Air Force Secretary, Michael Donley, and Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, issued a directive to ensure there was no retaliation against the two whistle-blowers,” Lieutenant General Janet Wolfenbarger told the Congressional subcommittee hearing. Yet, as of this writing, Maj. Jeremy Gordon’s Air Force doctor put him on “do not fly” status for medical reasons.
In Wilson’s case, he has been reprimanded for not flying, his salary cut, and he was to be summoned to another hearing. Congressman Kinzinger said: “Congress granted protection to whistle-blowers in general and specifically military to say: ‘If you have a concern, you know – not something obviously little, but something pretty big and serious – you have a right to talk to your congressman because just ‘cause you join the military doesn’t mean you give up your right to citizenship.’”
Located in the ventral bays, the F-22 is armed with six AIM- 120C advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM). The tails and wings of the missiles have been reduced to enable the missile to fit better into internal bays. There are no performance compromises with the reduction.
The Air Force has not revealed how many of its 200 F-22 pilots have declined to fly the jet. Since the segment aired on “60 Minutes,” other pilots have contacted Sen. Mark Warner, of Virginia, which is home to one of the seven Air Force bases where F-22s are based. “After meeting with these pilots, and having conversations with many other knowledgeable individuals, we would recommend an immediate, confidential and anonymous safety survey of all active duty and reservist F-22 crews, pilots and flight surgeons to definitively document the scope and frequency of these hypoxia-like incidents,” said Warner.
Warner and Kinzinger wrote to USAF Secretary, Michael B. Donley: “It is our view that such a survey could be initiated within 10 days, and our offices would expect to receive timely updates both on the survey methodology and the results shortly thereafter.”
“High-speed manoeuvres at high altitudes may be the reason some pilots are experiencing oxygen deprivation while flying the F-22,” said an Air Force general, although she insisted 17 new safety measures had made the jets safe to fly. General Wolfenbarger told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee that recent data was helping the Air Force narrow down its hunt for the root cause of the issue. “We are starting to believe that we are coming to closure on that root cause,” she said. “We’re realising that we operate this aircraft differently than we operate any of our other fighter aircraft. We fly at a higher altitude; we execute manoeuvres that are high-G at that high altitude. And we’re on that oxygen system at those high altitudes for periods of time.”
Since equipment such as the OBOGS is fairly standardised across multiple aircraft types, this writer has to wonder if it may be as “simple” as a defective line of code in one of the onboard computers that controls the oxygen system. The only problem here is that it is not so simple to fix. There are literally tens of thousands of lines of computer code that need to be checked and cross-checked to find the problem.