U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and an Illinois congressman expressed outrage in a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that an F-22 fighter pilot's career has been stalled for two years after he publicly complained about legitimate safety issues with the plane.
"This cannot stand," Warner and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger wrote in the letter to Hagel, arguing that the treatment of Capt. Joshua Wilson is sending the message that military leaders will retaliate against service members who speak out about wrongdoing.
Wilson and Maj. Jeremy Gordon, both Virginia Air National Guard pilots assigned to Langley Air Force Base, told CBS's "60 Minutes" program in the spring of 2012 that the F-22 Raptor had a defective oxygen system that was endangering pilots. They had expressed similar concerns to military superiors before the broadcast.
Their public comments sparked a strong Pentagon reaction, helping provoke the Air Force to spend tens of millions to address the problem. But neither pilot has been back in the Raptor since early 2012.
A Virginian-Pilot report in April focused on what has happened to Wilson over the past two years as he awaits completion of a Defense Department inspector general investigation. In his first interview since "60 Minutes," Wilson said that speaking out sparked reprisals by his Virginia Air National Guard commanders.
According to his written complaint and Air Force documents, a series of punitive actions began about the same time the national broadcast was being prepared. His bosses halted his planned promotion to major and began a formal review that threatened to take away his wings.
His commanders also forced him to quit his full-time desk job at the Air Force's Air Combat Command at Langley, costing him most of his income. He is still listed as a part-time F-22 pilot with Virginia Air National Guard's 149th Fighter Squadron.
An Air National Guard spokesman declined to discuss Wilson's case but said commanders are waiting for the inspector general's report before resolving any "outstanding issues."
Gordon, a decorated F-16 fighter pilot in the Iraq War, voluntarily stopped flying the F-22 and has not faced disciplinary action.
Warner and Kinzinger wrote, "This drawn out process sends a chilling message throughout the Air Force, and in all service branches, that if you come forward as a whistleblower to report wrongdoing, there is a high likelihood that your career will be derailed, you may lose pay and benefits, and you and your family will suffer retaliation."
The two have been outspoken about the plane's problems and their concerns about pilots' welfare since the men first came forward. Kinzinger, an Illinois Air National Guard pilot, and Warner sought to protect them under the federal whistleblower law that allows military personnel to speak directly to Congress. Kinzinger was in the room when Wilson and Gordon spoke with "60 Minutes."
"Simply stated, these gutsy airmen stepped forward to raise concerns that many F-22 pilots were feeling," the legislators wrote.
The primary issue had been an unexplained problem with the Raptor's oxygen system. Pilots had been reporting hypoxialike symptoms, including becoming disoriented, nauseated and extremely fatigued.
New backup oxygen systems are being installed, along with other equipment changes intended to fix the problem.
"While the F-22 airplane fleet is finally advancing toward getting back on track, we cannot say the same for the courageous pilots who came forward," the legislators wrote. Critical of the slow pace of the investigation, they urged Hagel to complete the probe as soon as possible.
Wilson declined to comment on the letter.