Two F-22 Raptor pilots have said publicly that not only are they afraid to fly the most expensive fighter jets in American history, but the military has attempted to silence them and other F-22 pilots by threatening their careers.
"There have been squadrons that have stood down over concerns. And there's been threat of reprisals," F-22 pilot Josh Wilson told CBS News' "60 Minutes" Sunday. "There's been threat of flying evaluation boards clipping our wings and doing ground jobs. And... in my case, potentially getting booted out of the Air Force.
"So right now there's an example being set of, 'Hey, if you speak up about safety, you're going to be out of the organization,'" Wilson said.
Despite the Air Force's glowing descriptions of the next-generation jet as America's future of air dominance, as an ABC News "Nightline" investigation broadcast last week found, unknown problems with the plane's oxygen system have already contributed to the death of one pilot, the near-death of another and mid-air scares for dozens more.
Wilson and fellow F-22 pilot Jeremy Gordon, both veteran fighter pilots for the Virginia Air National Guard who came forward under whistleblower protection from Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R.-Ill.), have asked not to fly the F-22 anymore, according to CBS News, citing their concerns with the oxygen problem.
Gordon said that two weeks after he requested not to fly the jet, he was called before a board of officers.
"I was asked to make a decision that day whether I wanted to fly or find another line of work," he said.
Several current and former F-22 pilots contacted by ABC News for its investigation either did not respond or quickly declined to comment on the plane and two relatives of flyers told ABC News that the pilots had been instructed not to speak to the media on penalty of potentially losing their post with the F-22 -- a coveted position despite the safety concerns. One pilot, when initially contacted by ABC News for comment, agreed to speak on the record but only after he checked with the Air Force public affairs office. Since then, the pilot has not responded to any of ABC News' attempts to communicate.
Air Force spokesperson John Dorrian told ABC News he has no information about any pilots being explicitly told not to speak to the media about the Raptor and noted that several F-22 pilots have been made available to the press at Air Force events. Dorrian did say that if a member of the Air Force wishes to speak with the media as a representative of the Air Force, that engagement is conducted through the Air Force public affairs office, but whistleblowers are still protected.
"Corporately, the Air Force position is the Air Force is not going to tolerate any reprisal actions against whistleblowers," Dorrian said.
Since Wilson and Gordon are assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard, Dorrian said he did not have specific information on their case.
Col. Thomas Wark, commander of the Virginia Air National Guard's 192nd Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, told ABC News that while it would be inappropriate to discuss personnel actions, the Guard "is fully aware and supports the rights of military members under the Military Whistleblowers Act and would not consider using disciplinary actions as a means of reprisal."
Top officials at the Air Force and Lockheed Martin refused to take part in one-on-one interviews with ABC News for its broadcast report, but the Air Force provided a statement last week in which it says the service is committed to "unparalleled dedication to flight safety."
"Flying America's premier fighter aircraft always entails risk but the Air Force has, and always will, take every measure to ensure the safety of our aircrews while delivering air superiority for the nation," the statement said. The Air Force has also stressed that reports of "hypoxia-like symptoms" are exceedingly rare -- more than two dozen compared to the thousands of flights flown without incident.
Last week the Air Force officially received the last F-22 Raptor from defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin, completing an order of 187 planes that cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $79 billion -- meaning that including research, development and production among other costs, each plane has a price tag of more than $420 million. Despite being the most advanced fighters on the planet, none of the planes have been used on a combat mission since they went combat-ready in late 2005. Critics told ABC News that's because the jet was designed to fight rival, sophisticated fighters – an enemy that doesn't exist right now.