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.
F-22 Pilot Blamed in Fatal Crash After Plane Malfunction
Capt. Jeff Haney was flying the Air Force's next-generation stealth F-22 Raptor on a routine training mission in Alaska in November 2010 when a sudden malfunction cut off his oxygen completely. Capt. Haney never made a distress call but took his plane into a dive and, a little over a minute later, crashed into the winter wilderness at faster than the speed of sound.
After a lengthy investigation, an Air Force Accident Investigation Board could not find the cause of the malfunction but determined "by clear and convincing evidence" that in addition to other factors, Haney was to blame for the crash because he was too distracted by his inability to breathe to fly the plane properly.
But Haney's sister, Jennifer, told ABC News in an exclusive interview she believes her brother blacked out trying to save himself and said that by blaming him, the Air Force was attempting to deflect attention from the ongoing, mysterious oxygen problem with the costly planes.
"I don't agree with [the Air Force]. I think there was a lot more going on inside that cockpit," Jennifer Haney said. "A cover-up? I don't know. But there's something."
In at least 25 cases since 2008, F-22 pilots have reported experiencing "hypoxia-like symptoms" in mid-air, according to the Air Force. Last year the Air Force grounded the full fleet of F-22s for nearly five months to investigate, but still no one knows what is going wrong, even as the planes are back in the air. Hypoxia is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain and is characterized by dizziness, confusion, lack of judgment and, eventually, unconsciousness.
In one case before the grounding, a pilot became so disoriented that his plane dropped down and skimmed treetops before he managed to save himself and return to base, an Air Force spokesperson told ABC News. Presumably speaking of the same incident, Gordon told "60 Minutes" the pilot had to be told he had hit the trees -- he didn't remember doing it himself.
Wilson described experiencing apparent hypoxia while in the cockpit as a "surreal experience" and Gordon said the onset is "insidious."
"Some pilots will go the entire mission, land and not know anything went wrong," Gordon said.
To Jennifer Haney, every time an F-22 goes up, it's risking the life of its pilot. She spoke to ABC News because she said she couldn't stand to see another family go through what hers had.
"I know that the Air Force has said that they were very proud to have Jeff and are very sorry for our loss -- well then, in Jeff's name, fix this," she said. "We want to make sure Jeff did not die in vain -- that his death will mean something and that if it saves lives of pilots now, future pilots, then he died for the greater good or something."
The Air Force has already begun to enact changes to the jet in hopes of mitigating the oxygen problem, including adding pilot-monitoring equipment and improving the emergency oxygen system.
But for all their effort, the Air Force still doesn't have what Jennifer Haney said is most important both to her family and to the families of pilots that risk their lives every day at the controls of the F-22: answers.
"I believe Jeff deserves that. That was my baby brother and I believe he deserves that. He deserves the truth to be told as to what happened. Not anybody's guesses," she said. "He deserves the truth. He deserves honor and so do his little girls."