Panetta Orders Air Force to Take Further Steps on F‑22

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2012 — With safe­ty remain­ing his top con­cern, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta has ordered the Air Force to take addi­tion­al steps to mit­i­gate risks to F‑22 pilots, George Lit­tle, act­ing assis­tant sec­re­tary of defense for pub­lic affairs, said today.

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Begin­ning in 2008, a few pilots expe­ri­enced hypox­ia-like symp­toms when fly­ing the air­craft, Lit­tle told reporters at a Pen­ta­gon news con­fer­ence. Hypox­ia is a defi­cien­cy of oxy­gen. There have been a total of 12 cas­es of these hypox­ia-like symp­toms affect­ing pilots. 

Lit­tle said the sec­re­tary has fol­lowed devel­op­ments in the F‑22 close­ly and has direct­ed the Air Force to expe­dite the instal­la­tion of an auto­mat­ic back­up oxy­gen sys­tem in all of the planes. 

In addi­tion, effec­tive imme­di­ate­ly, all F‑22 flights will remain near poten­tial land­ing loca­tions to enable quick recov­ery and land­ing should a pilot encounter unan­tic­i­pat­ed phys­i­o­log­i­cal con­di­tions dur­ing flight” Lit­tle said. 

Final­ly, Panet­ta direct­ed the Air Force to pro­vide him with a month­ly progress report as the ser­vice con­tin­ues the search for the root cause of the problem. 

These steps are in addi­tion to the mea­sures the Air Force is already tak­ing to deter­mine the root caus­es of the hypox­ia-like symp­toms pilots have experienced. 

Panet­ta made this deci­sion in part due to the reluc­tance of some pilots to fly the air­craft, Lit­tle said. 

“Sec­re­tary Panet­ta believes the depart­ment must do every­thing pos­si­ble to ensure pilot safe­ty and min­i­mize flight risks,” Lit­tle said. 

The secretary’s direc­tions take into account the need for deter­min­ing the cause of the prob­lem, while still allow­ing the mil­i­tary to use the unique capa­bil­i­ties pro­vid­ed by the F‑22 Rap­tor. The air­craft are based in the Unit­ed States and are now deployed to South­west Asia, Lit­tle said. As the only fifth-gen­er­a­tion air­craft in the world, he added, the plane is the most capa­ble fight­er in the air and is nec­es­sary to main­tain U.S. air dominance. 

“Safe­ty is a zero-sum game,” Pen­ta­gon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kir­by said at the news con­fer­ence. The auto­mat­ic back­up oxy­gen sys­tem will com­plete test­ing by the end of Novem­ber, with instal­la­tion in line fight­ers begin­ning in Decem­ber. Ten Rap­tors will be retro­fit­ted with this sys­tem per month, he said. 

Keep­ing the F‑22 fleet fly­ing allows the ser­vice to exam­ine the air­craft close­ly. “There’s a trou­bleshoot­ing process going on right now,” Kir­by said. “So the air­craft being in oper­a­tion assists that process. We believe we’ve mit­i­gat­ed the risks as much as possible.” 

But safe­ty is the para­mount con­cern, he said, and if he needs to, the sec­re­tary will ground the fleet. “But right now, he believes … this is the right course,” Kir­by said. 

The Air Force has been study­ing the prob­lem since 2008. “The root cause of hypox­ia-like events has not been deter­mined,” Lit­tle said. “It is pos­si­ble … that it could be attrib­uted to the oxy­gen sys­tem in the air­plane – thus the instal­la­tion of a back­up sys­tem. But it could have oth­er caus­es, too, and the Air Force is aggres­sive­ly look­ing at oth­er fac­tors that could be contributing.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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