Taking a closer look at F-22 pilots
An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., pulls away after refueling off the east coast in this May 2012 photo.
Newport News, Va. — The Air Force can't put a flight surgeon in the F-22 Raptor to ride shotgun with pilots, but a noted researcher said it might be time to consider the next best thing.
Additional equipment on the F-22 could monitor how well the pilot's brain is processing information, said Dr. Lawrence Steinkraus, a former Air Force flight surgeon now with the Mayo Clinic. That could provide more data in the event of another unexplained oxygen-supply problem in the cockpit – the sort of which has prompted exhaustive investigations.
"We want to know, are you OK between the ears?" He said. "Essentially, are you there?"
F-22 Raptor pilots based at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton and elsewhere have complained about dizziness, lack of alertness and other symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation. The problem attracted nationwide attention in May when two Virginia Air National Guard pilots at Langley aired their concerns on "60 Minutes."
Earlier this year, the Air Force announced it had discovered a combination of factors that led to the unexplained cases. It centered on the pilot's gear, not the airplane itself.
Steinkraus said additional work is needed before sophisticated monitoring technology could become incorporated into the F-22 or another advanced jet. But he said the question is relevant because the human body is being stretched to its limits each time the military builds another high-performing aircraft.
"We have these super-capable aircraft that can do this amazing stuff," Steinkraus said."But we're still faced with the same 'Mark One' human. We still need to answer the mail on that."
He outlined his views in a recent article co-authored for the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine. Additional monitoring would solve one nagging problem: a lack of data about pilots themselves..
"It can be argued that pilots know far more about their engines than their own health in flight, and flight surgeons know even less," the article states. The notion of being fit to fly "generally has been a mirror check for most pilots."
The Air Force agrees Steinkraus's work needs more research and development. That said, Steinkraus has the Air Force's ear.
"Dr. Steinkraus and his team have supported the F-22 investigation, and they're continuing to do Air Force-funded work on the neurocognitive effects of hypoxia, so we obviously value his insights," said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for Air Combat Command, headquartered in Langley.
But while hypoxia problems have been a source of concern, Air Force investigators announced earlier this year that they had isolated several pieces of equipment that contributed to the problem.
A valve that caused a pressure vest to inflate at the wrong time had restricted pilots' breathing. The valve is being redesigned, and pilots were told to stop wearing the vest. Also, Raptor manufacturer Lockheed Martin has been awarded a contract to install an automatic, backup oxygen supply.
The Air Force hasn't logged an unexplained hypoxia incident since March. A Raptor crash at Tyndall Air Force Base last month has not been linked to oxygen-supply problems in the cockpit.
When it comes to new technology, Sholtis said the Air Force must weigh the cost versus the benefit. Factoring into that decision, he said, is the progress already made in reducing the risk of another hypoxia incident and the time that's passed since the last problem occurred.
Also, the Air Force has taken a deeper look at cognitive and physiological effects of F-22 flight as part of returning it to service after a four-month grounding last year. F-22 pilots have been trained to recognize early symptoms of impairment, and the Air Force has used finger- and helmet-mounted pulse oximeters that measure oxygen levels in the blood.
The diamond-winged, stealthy Raptor is considered the most advanced fighter in the U.S. arsenal. Pilots must process a lot of data at the same time to be effective. That is what drives Steinkraus' desire to look at cognitive brain functions
"It's no longer a matter of moving the stick and the rudder," he said. "It's really managing a lot of information. Pilots on the military side – these are not your barnstormers. The average IQ for a pilot is at or above most of the doctors I work with."
What must happen before a "computerized flight surgeon" qualifies for a ride-along?
One challenge is developing technology that doesn't result in false alarms, Steinkraus said. For instance, equipment can monitor eye movement of pilots. That could be useful because a pilot must make certain routine checks, and a disorganized pattern of eye movement could mean the pilot is dizzy or in danger..
But what if eye movement isn't normal because the pilot has been thrust into a battle? The last thing anyone wants, Steinkraus said, is the equivalent of an annoying car alarm in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
"It is critical," he said, "that we do not start adding stuff that, a, is not going to be useful, and b, is wrong."