The Department of Defense on Tuesday said there will be limits on F-22 Raptor flights over complaints regarding the fighter jet’s oxygen supply problems.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said his agency will take measures to deal with reported safety problems with the jet, which came to prominence several weeks ago when two veteran Air Force pilots complained about the health situation of pilots who fly the F-22 on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”
On the program, Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson said other pilots of the F-22, the most expensive fighter jet in use, complained of blackouts, dizziness, and other symptoms, and have said oxygen deprivation is likely the culprit.
Wilson claimed that the one fatal F-22 crash in Alaska was due to the oxygen deprivation pilots routinely experience. He said there will likely be more if nothing is done.
“Nobody is going to be surprised. It’s only a matter of time,” he said in the interview, which aired on May 6.
“Secretary Panetta believes the department must do everything possible to ensure pilot safety and minimize flight risks,” George Little, acting assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said in a release.
Effective immediately, the Air Force will relegate F-22 flights to areas with nearby landing locations to mitigate the effects of potential oxygen deprivation, potentially leading to “unanticipated physiological conditions during flight,” a release from the Pentagon reads, citing Little.
This means that F-22 patrol flights over Alaska will be put to an end.
Secretary Little confirmed that the decision to limit using the F-22 was in part due to pilots’ complaints and their reluctance to fly it. There are no F-22s currently flying in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and are primarily deployed in the United States and southwestern Asia.
There have also been complaints in the past that the maintenance costs of the F-22, considered the most advanced fighter plane in the world and able to evade radar detection systems, are too high. The Air Force estimates that the planes cost $150 million each, but in a recent estimate, the Government Accountability Office has said each one really costs around $412 million.
The Defense Department said it would not entirely stop using the plane because flying it allows the agency to examine it for defects. The automatic backup oxygen system will be installed in the Raptors by November, with around 10 being upgraded each month.
“There’s a troubleshooting process going on right now,” Navy Capt. John Kirby, a spokesperson with the Pentagon, said. “So the aircraft being in operation assists that process. We believe we’ve mitigated the risks as much as possible.”
If Panetta thinks the problem is too severe, then all the jets will be grounded, Kirby added.
The Air Force has known about and has studied the pilots’ problems since 2008, according to the Defense Department news release.“The root cause of hypoxia-like events has not been determined,” Little said. “It is possible … that it could be attributed to the oxygen system in the airplane, thus the installation of a backup system. But it could have other causes, too, and the Air Force is aggressively looking at other factors that could be contributing.”
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