Hickam F-22 pilot has “in-flight emergency” due to lack of oxygen

Last week Tuesday, July 10, 2012, a Hawaii Air National Guard pilot experienced oxygen deprivation while flying an F-22 Raptor, the most advanced fighter aircraft in the U.S. military arsenal.

The AP reported “Stealth Fighter Jet Flaw: Pilot Suffers Oxygen Deprivation While Flying F-22 Raptor” (July 11, 2012):

The Hawaii Air National Guard said Tuesday one of its pilots briefly experienced an oxygen deficit while flying an F-22 stealth fighter last week.

The pilot was heading back to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam from a routine training sortie when sensors indicated he wasn’t getting as much oxygen as he should, said Lt. Col. Charles Anthony, a spokesman for the Hawaii Guard.

The pilot also felt dizzy. He activated the emergency oxygen system until his symptoms abated and the plane’s oxygen generating system returned to normal.

The Honolulu Star Advertiser reported “Hypoxia incident involves isle F-22 pilot” (July 11, 2012):

A Hawaii-based F-22 Raptor pilot declared an “in-flight emergency” Friday after experiencing momentary dizziness, as a troubling air supply problem on the costly stealth jets continues to spread, officials said.

It was the first reported case of hypoxia-like symptoms — not getting enough oxygen — experienced by a Hawaii-based pilot, said Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, a Hawaii National Guard spokes­man.

[. . .]

While the case was a first for Hawaii, it’s the latest in a string of F-22 oxygen deprivation problems that have become an embarrassment for the Air Force as it attempts to justify the Raptor, the most expensive fighter ever built.

The Air Force pegs the cost at $143 million per jet, but the total program cost is $77.4 billion, or $412 million per plane counting research and development and upgrades.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former combat pilot, told ABC News in May that the F-22 was designed with a Cold War mentality.

“(The F-22) has not flown a single combat mission,” McCain said. He added that he doesn’t think the F-22 will ever be involved in the combat it was designed for, “because that threat is no longer in existence.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., brought the Hawaii incident to light in a joint letter delivered Tuesday to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

The letter said according to “information shared directly with our offices, we understand there was a hypoxia-related in-flight emergency declared by an F-22 pilot incident on July 6 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.”

[. . .]

In addition to the Hickam emergency, the letter also noted a “restricted airflow” incident in late June involving an F-22 pilot at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., and a May 31 mishap at Tyndall Air Force in Florida in which an F-22 reportedly hit the runway without extending its landing gear.

A July 2 story cited 36 hypoxia incidents to that point, with 21 classified as unexplained. The arrival of six remaining Raptors to Hawaii — rounding out the squadron of 20 aircraft — has been delayed.

This latest incident comes days after the New York Times published an article “Oxygen problems on F-22 elude Air Force’s fixes” (July 3, 2012) on the lingering problems plaguing the F-22s:

Capt. Jeff Haney was at 51,000 feet on a night flight above Alaska in November 2010 when the oxygen system in his F-22 Raptor fighter jet shut down, restricting his ability to breathe as he plummeted faster than the speed of sound into the tundra below. His plane burned a crater into the ice, froze 40 feet beneath the surface and was not fully recovered until the spring thaw.

Haney’s death unnerved the elite community of F-22 pilots, as did a series of episodes over the next 18 months in which an alarming number experienced symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation. The Air Force grounded the Raptor, the jewel of its fleet, but could not find anything wrong, so it put the jet back in the air — only to have the episodes increase. In May, two seasoned pilots took the extraordinary step of telling “60 Minutes” that they refused to fly the plane.

The Air Force thought it had identified and fixed the problem — malfunctioning pressure vests and leaking narrow oxygen hoses — and went in to spin control to recuperate its image:

But last week, as Air Force officials escorted a reporter and a photographer to the Langley flight line to watch F-22s roaring on and off the runway for an ostensible good-news story, it happened again. A pilot pulled his emergency oxygen handle sometime after landing because of what the Air Force characterized as “discomfort” from intermittent air flow into the pilot’s mask during flight. The Air Force is investigating but so far has said little.

Here’s the link to the “60 Minutes” episode: “Is the Air Force’s F-22 fighter jet making pilots sick?” (May 6, 2012).

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