WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the Air Force to take extra measures to protect F-22 pilots while it investigates the cause of several incidents of hypoxia-like symptoms.
Air Force officials last week said they had not found the cause of the symptoms affecting pilots, nor had they determined why a cough some pilots experience after breathing high concentrations of oxygen under certain circumstances is more common in F-22 pilots than in F-15 and F-16 pilots.
Panetta has ordered the Air Force to speed up the installation of an automatic backup oxygen system, provide him with a monthly progress report on efforts to find the cause of the incidents and, effective immediately, to keep all F-22 flights close enough to potential landing strips that pilots would be able to land quickly if they begin experiencing the hypoxia-like symptoms.
Pentagon spokesmen George Little and Capt. John Kirby said that Panetta has not set a specific time or distance limit for the flights. But Little said it will mean “long-duration airspace control flights in Alaska will be performed by other aircraft.”
“Secretary Panetta supports the measures taken so far by the Air Force to pursue all plausible hypotheses and determine the root causes of the hypoxia-like symptoms experienced by F-22 pilots,” Little said. “However, the safety of our pilots remains his first and foremost concern.”
The Air Force grounded all F-22 Raptors last May after reports of 14 hypoxia-like incidents, in which pilots experienced symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
Before returning to flight, all F-22 pilots went through additional oxygen-deprivation training so they would be more aware of their symptoms, Col. Paul Gardetto, Air Combat Command’s chief of aerospace physiology, said last week. The Air Force also added new sensors and emergency measures so the pilots could more easily activate backup oxygen systems. Pilots have been instructed to reduce altitude and attempt to land if they experience any of symptoms, Gardetto said.
Raptors returned to the sky in September. In March, members of an Air Force advisory panel told reporters they still had not determined what caused the incidents, but stressed they were confident that the F-22 and its oxygen system does not pose any unnecessary risk.
Since the supersonic fighters returned to the air, there have been at least 11 reported hypoxia-like incidents in F-22 pilots, and five aircraft maintainers reported those symptoms after being inside the cockpits while the plane was on the ground.
Some F-22s were recently deployed to Southwest Asia, but no incidents have been reported there and Little said the Pentagon believes the deployment can continue safely.
Kirby said the Air Force will continue to examine the aircraft and work to determine the problem, but officials believe “we’ve mitigated the risk as much as possible.”
Kirby also dismissed suggestions that the highly trained pilots are being used as guinea pigs.
“I don’t think we would ever refer to a pilot in the United States Air Force as a guinea pig,” Kirby said. “They’re highly trained, highly skilled and we value their service and their expertise. And frankly, that service and expertise is critical to helping us figure out what the problem is.”