America's most expensive fighter plane is ready for combat despite some of its pilots experiencing repeated and mysterious apparent breathing problems that have put a quick end to multiple training missions, Air Force officials said today at a special briefing.
In nearly two dozen cases in the past four years, pilots have reported experiencing "hypoxia-like" symptoms in the $143 million-a-pop stealth F-22 Raptor. Though the incidents are extremely rare, the Air Force is so concerned that they've taken a "911 call approach" – meaning that if a pilot gets the slightest indication that anything is wrong, he's directed to end the training mission and turn back to base. The fleet of next generation fighters, which cost $77.4 billion total, have been considered combat operational since 2005, but none have been used in a single combat mission from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya.
That doesn't mean the F-22 couldn't go to war at a moment's notice, Air Force Maj. Gen. Noel Jones said today.
"If our nation needs a capability to enter contested air space, to deal with air forces that are trying to deny our forces the ability to maneuver without prejudice on the ground, it will be the F-22 that takes on that mission," Jones, Director of Operational Capability Requirements, said at a special briefing at the Pentagon held to address concerns with the beleaguered F-22. "It can do that right now and is able to do that without hesitation."
Air Force officials also unveiled the findings of a Scientific Advisory Board Study, which was convened to investigate the plane's life support systems. The study, led by Gen. Gregory Martin (Ret.), failed to discover the source of the oxygen problems but listed several related shortcomings with the plane and announced 14 different recommendations.
At the same briefing, the top Air Force official in charge of F-22 operations, Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon, said he stood behind a controversial Air Force investigation report that blamed an F-22 pilot for the crash that took his life, despite the malfunction that completely shut off his oxygen. Capt. Jeff Haney died when his plane crashed into the Alaskan wilderness in November 2010.
The Pentagon Inspector General's office is reviewing the Air Force's investigation, the first such major review in nearly two decades.
Recently the Air Force announced it was replacing the emergency oxygen system handles in all of its F-22s. In Haney's case the emergency oxygen system was never deployed, and the Air Force report had noted that pilots may have difficulty reaching the handle in their cumbersome winter gear.