By Bill Bartel
Facing a mysterious safety problem with the Air Force's most-prized stealth fighter, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Tuesday ordered new flight restrictions on the F-22 Raptor and summoned help from Navy and NASA experts.
Panetta endorsed Air Force efforts to figure out why some F-22 pilots have experienced dizziness and other symptoms of an oxygen shortage while flying, but his personal intervention signaled a new urgency. A secretary of defense does not usually get involved in a service-specific safety issue unless it is of great concern.
The Air Force grounded its F-22s for four months last year because of the oxygen-deficit problem, and now some pilots are refusing to fly them. An Air Force advisory panel headed by a retired Air Force general studied the problem for seven months and reported in March that it could not pinpoint the cause. It endorsed a plan keeping the aircraft flying, however, with pilots using special sensors, filters and other safety precautions.
Panetta was briefed on the problem Friday, just days after a CBS "60 Minutes" report featured Capt. Josh Wilson and Maj. Jeremy Gordon, two F-22 pilots from Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton. Each said that during some flights, they and other pilots have experienced oxygen deprivation, disorientation and other problems. They cited safety concerns and the potential for long-term personal health problems.
Asked why Panetta is acting now, Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the defense chief has been aware of the F-22 problem "for quite some time." In light of the recent deployment of several F-22s to the Persian Gulf and because of pilots' expressions of alarm, Panetta chose to "dive a little more deeply into the issue."
In a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Panetta ordered:
- F-22 flights to remain "within proximity of potential landing locations" so that pilots can land quickly in the event they experience an oxygen-deficit problem. Kirby said the specifics of those flight restrictions are to be set by individual F-22 pilots and commanders.
- the accelerated installation of an automatic backup oxygen system in each F-22. The first of those is to be ready for use by December, Kirby said.
- the Air Force to call on the expertise of the Navy and NASA in pursuit of a solution.
Panetta's actions have no immediate effect on U.S. combat operations because the F-22 is not in Afghanistan. But Panetta said the plane would give up long-distance air patrol missions in Alaska until the planes have an automatic backup oxygen system installed or until Panetta agrees the F-22 can resume those flights. Other aircraft will perform those missions in the meantime.
Panetta's chief spokesman, George Little, told reporters that Panetta supports the Air Force's efforts to get to the bottom of the problem.
"However, the safety of our pilots remains his first and foremost concern," Little said.
Little did not rule out Panetta taking more measures. Asked whether Panetta considered grounding the fleet again, Little said Tuesday's less drastic moves are "the prudent course of action at this time," adding that Panetta will keep a close eye on the situation, "and all options remain on the table going forward."
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., last week requested the Air Force conduct a confidential survey of F-22 pilots and flight surgeons to find out more about the problem.
Warner said Tuesday that Panetta's actions are a step in the right direction but that more research is needed.
"The deeper we dig, the more uncertain I am that we've found the root cause yet," Warner said in a conference call with reporters.
He and Kinzinger, a pilot in the Air Force Reserves, said that among the Air Force's first steps should be to withdraw a reprimand issued to Wilson. Both Langley-Eustis pilots have already been promised by the Air Force that they would not be penalized for speaking out publicly.
Nine others, including two flight surgeons, have since contacted the legislators to raise similar concerns about oxygen deprivation and the air-filtering system, Warner said.
"We want to make sure that the pilots understand that they can talk about their concerns. They don't have to worry about retribution," Kinzinger said. He added that pilots shouldn't be forced to fly a plane in which they don't feel safe. "That's one of the first things I learned in pilot training."
Kinzinger said he believes the problems with the aircraft can be corrected.
The F-22 Raptor, which has never flown in combat, recently deployed to the United Arab Emirates for what the Pentagon called routine partnering with a Middle East ally. Little, the spokesman, told reporters that Panetta's order to impose new flight restrictions would not affect flight operations during the UAE deployment.
The plane, conceived during the Cold War as a leap-ahead technology that could penetrate the most advanced air defenses, is seen by some as an overly expensive luxury not critical to fighting current conflicts. The fleet of 187 F-22s - the last of which was fielded just two weeks ago - cost an average of $190 million each.
With its stealth design, the F-22 is built by Lockheed Martin to evade radar and has advanced engines that allow it to fly at faster-than-sound speeds without using afterburners.