F-22 safety questions remain despite Panetta's order

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the Air Force to take steps to address safety concerns surrounding the F-22 stealth fighter jet. But critics say his directive doesn't go far enough.

Steve Helber/AP/File
Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage answers reporters' questions during a media availability at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., last month.

One military watchdog says Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's order aimed at preventing F-22 stealth fighter jets from crash-landing does not go far enough in preventing potential pilot injury or death. 

On Tuesday, Secretary Panetta told the Air Force to speed up installation of a backup oxygen system in F-22s and to keep F-22 flights near emergency landing strips at all times “should a pilot encounter unanticipated physiological conditions during flight,” according to a Defense Department news release.

But “what Panetta has done is very minor and doesn’t change that the pilots remain at risk,” says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project in the Project on Government Oversight

The secretary's directive comes after years of problems that have plagued the most expensive fighter jet in military history. This month, news programs on CBS and ABC aired the concerns of two F-22 pilots who said they refused to fly the plane after becoming woozy and dizzy in mid-flight. The issue appears to be related to the plane's oxygen-distribution system. 

Already, Air Force officials had decided to ground the F-22 last May after nearly a dozen symptoms of oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, were reported. But the service resumed flights in September, and since then nearly a dozen more possible such cases have been reported, according to Pentagon officials. At least one Air Force pilot death in an F-22 crash is suspected to be related to oxygen deprivation.

With the order Tuesday, Panetta's intent is to make sure the Air Force does not take the matter lightly, according to Pentagon Press Secretary George Little. “The secretary wants to add is muscle to this,” he told reporters. “He takes very seriously the concerns raised by the pilots.”

The F-22 is a controversial icon of American air power. Developed with enemies like the Soviets in mind, F-22s have yet to fly a single combat mission. Yet their technology is cutting-edge, potentially allowing the United States to launch stealth attacks by flying at supersonic speeds and taking out enemy aircraft using advanced radars. 

“The F-22 is the highest icon of the Air Force – it’s the embodiment of their vision of warfare and technology,” Mr. Wheeler says.

The result, he says, is that Air Force officials "regard maintaining the image of the airplane as more important than maintaining the health of the pilots. It’s an unkind and simple assessment,” he adds, “But it’s true.” 

Some line workers manufacturing the F-22 have complained, for example, of health problems after inhaling the chemicals used for the stealth coating on the plane that helps it evade radar-detection systems, a matter which should also be investigated, Wheeler says.

Air Force officials deny that they are putting the F-22's image above safety.

Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command in Virginia, told reporters April 30 that the fighter jet is safe for pilots to fly. “Right now, we believe that risk – although it’s not as low as we would like it – is low enough to safely operate the airplane at the current tempo.”

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