Lawyer: Second pilot was pulled from F-22 after interview on safety issues
NORFOLK, Va. — A second F-22 Raptor pilot who spoke publicly about safety issues with the fighter jet was barred from flying the plane not long after appearing on national television two years ago, his attorney said Thursday.
The revelation came the same day that U.S. Sen. Mark Warner and an Illinois congressman pressed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to speed up what is now a two-year-long investigation into whether the Virginia Air National Guard pilots were wrongly punished for appearing on CBS's "60 Minutes" program in May 2012.
Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Joshua Wilson, both assigned to the Guard's 149th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, described how the plane's defective oxygen system was endangering pilots, noting that many aviators were not willing to speak publicly for fear of reprisals.
The men were treated differently in the spring of 2012 and in the months that followed the broadcast.
Gordon, 38, a fighter jet combat veteran, now does not fly the F-22 but remains in the squadron, flying a T-38 trainer jet. Attorney Rick Morgan, who represents both pilots, said Thursday that it wasn't Gordon's decision in May or June 2012 to stop flying the F-22.
"Maj. Gordon indicated to his leadership that he wished to return to the F-22 and was advised that they were not prepared to return him to that airplane," Morgan said. Gordon did not face formal disciplinary action.
Gordon, who has declined to be interviewed, was considered to be among the more seasoned F-22 pilots in the squadron. A 1998 Air Force Academy graduate, he holds several commendations, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, stemming from his duties as an F-16 pilot in the Iraq War. He had been flying the F-22 since 2006 while a full-time aviator before switching to the Air National Guard in 2009.
The Air Force made at least one attempt last year to get him back into its premier plane. Gen. Mark Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, who, like Gordon, began his career as an F-16 pilot, telephoned Gordon in 2013 to ask whether he wanted to fly the F-22 again, according to a source familiar with the conversation. Gordon declined.
Meanwhile, Wilson has said he's fighting to get his career back. He also is a former F-16 pilot whose goal has been to eventually become a full-time F-22 aviator.
Wilson requested a Defense Department Inspector General investigation in early 2012, claiming he was the focus of punitive actions that included stopping a planned promotion and initiating a review of his flight status that prevents him from flying in the interim. He's still assigned to the squadron but hasn't flown an F-22 since early 2012.
Air National Guard leaders said they won't resolve his personnel issues until the investigation is complete.
Wilson, who has been grounded for two years, has seen his income plummet. His Air National Guard commander withdrew permission in 2012 to allow Wilson to work a full-time desk job at the Air Combat Command at Langley.
The loss of that job, as well as F-22 flight pay, meant Wilson's military paycheck dropped to about $10,000 a year from about $100,000, said U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican and Air National Guard pilot who has been an advocate for the two aviators.
Kinzinger and Warner reiterated Thursday that Wilson has wrongly been retaliated against for pressing for fixes to a faulty oxygen system that was endangering pilots. In the past two years, the Air Force has spent millions installing a new backup system and other equipment meant to address the concern.
Warner said there's been no indication when the inspector general's inquiry might be completed but noted that usually, personnel-related investigations take months.
"Two years should be more than enough time," he said.
Cotton Puryear, a Virginia National Guard spokesman, said he could not comment on Gordon or actions pending against Wilson.
"Everything is hold until the IG investigation is complete - as long as it's done right," Puryear said. "We don't want it rushed."