Two F-22 Raptor fighter jets intercepted two other planes that had entered restricted airspace over the United Nations General Assembly in separate incidents today, the military said.
The two unidentified planes entered temporarily restricted airspace over the international diplomatic headquarters where President Obama spoke and were later intercepted over central New Jersey, according to the North Atlantic Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Both planes, described as “general aviation aircraft,” landed at a nearby airport without incident.
The F-22s were called to take on the intercept mission just months after the Air Force claimed to have solved a mysterious problem with the $420 million-a-pop fighters in which pilots reported experiencing symptoms of oxygen deprivation in mid-flight. The problem forced the entire fleet of 180-odd aircraft — which has never been in combat — to stand down for months in 2011 and the planes were only let back in the air under strict flight restrictions — restrictions that are now being lifted.
The F-22′s past problems apparently weren’t a concern for the joint U.S.-Canadian NORAD command, where spokesperson Lt. Al Blondin told ABC News that choosing an aircraft for an intercept mission – either an F-22, F-15, F-16 or a Canadian fighter — really just comes down to a matter of convenience.
“It’s whichever one is readily available,” he said. “Day to day, we’ve got them on stand-by all over North America.”
F-22s have previously been scrambled to intercept aircraft from Maryland to Illinois, according to NORAD, and once, in 2009, F-22s reportedly shadowed a Russian patrol near the arctic.
Those incidents are the closest any planes in the $79 billion Raptor fleet have ever come to combat, as they went unused in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the temporary U.S.-led no-fly zone over Libya last year. The 180-odd F-22 planes, built by defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin and billed by the Air Force as the most advanced stealth jets on the planet, simply weren’t necessary in those operations, the Air Force said.
In May, an ABC News investigation into the mystery F-22 problem found that in more than two dozen instances since 2008, Raptor pilots reported experiencing the symptoms of oxygen deprivation including dizziness, sluggishness and poor judgment while in mid-flight. In one instance, a pilot apparently became so disoriented that his plane dipped down and skimmed treetops before he was able to save himself. In a separate incident, Capt. Jeff Haney was killed in a crash shortly after a still unknown malfunction caused his oxygen system to shut down mid-flight.
The Air Force launched multiple investigations of their own with the help of NASA engineers and Navy divers, but for months were unable to figure out what was causing the pilot’s problems. It wasn’t until July that the military announced it had found what they believed to be the main problem: an overinflated pressure vest that was restricting the pilots’ breathing.
The Air Force has since began lifting the flight restrictions on the plane and is in the process of installing a secondary automatic back-up oxygen system on the planes as a precaution — a system that Haney’s family said would have saved his life had it been in place two years ago.