AP: Air Force foresaw F-22 woes but nixed fixes as too costly
"The schedule would provide less oxygen at lower altitudes than the current schedule, which has been known to cause problems with delayed ear blocks and acceleration atelectasis,'' the technical term for the condition that leads to the coughing, according to the minutes from RAW-G's final meeting.
RAW-G members had spent two years pushing for the change in the oxygen schedule the amount of oxygen pumped into pilots' life-support systems but the necessary software upgrade never came through.
"The cost was considered prohibitive in light of other items that people wanted funded for the F-22,'' said Kevin Divers, a former Air Force physiologist who spearheaded RAW-G until he left the service in 2007 and the group disbanded.
Divers believes the cost would have been about $100,000 per aircraft.
The link between oxygen saturation at lower altitudes and the recent spate of hypoxia-like incidents at high altitudes remains a matter of debate, and it is likely that there are other contributing factors. Both the Air Force and the NASA, however, now concur that the F-22's oxygen schedule needs to be revised.
At a House subcommittee hearing this month, Clinton Cragg, the chief engineer for NASA's Engineering and Safety Center, said the current schedules provide too much oxygen at lower altitudes as RAW-G warned and also agreed with RAW-G that testing was insufficient "even back to the beginning of the program.''
Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for the Air Combat Command at Virginia's Langley-Eustis Air Force Base, the home base for the F-22s deployed in Japan, said the RAW-G group was not meant to last indefinitely. He said it was set up to help officials at Tyndall get up to speed on the medical aspects of flying the F-22, and disbanded "after several meetings and a safe transition to regular F-22 operations at Tyndall.''
But even in the last days of the group, its members were identifying more work that needed to be done. In an email to Divers before RAW-G's final meeting, Wyman said health hazards for F-22 pilots and ground crew needed more study.
"I am interested in the potential physiologic/health issues related to flying and fixing the F-22s,'' he wrote. He added that increased gravitational forces during accelerated turns, high speeds and high altitudes, noise and the "low observable'' materials used to give the aircraft its stealth qualities "might lead to new health issues.''
By then, the F-22 was just one of the aircraft RAW-G was concerned with. Minutes from the final meeting include "action items'' identifying potential issues with the F-35 and the CV-22 Osprey, and a suggestion that RAW-G's work be carried on with higher-level oversight so that it would have more clout. But after Divers left the service, no one took up the torch.
The Air Force says it believes improvements now being put into place make the planes safe to fly under limited restrictions. It is now refitting all pilot life support gear, redesigning the vests so that modified versions can be introduced in the fall, and adding the automated backup oxygen system in the cockpit by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the F-22s in Japan must fly under 44,000 feet so that the flawed vests will not be required, and are on a 30-minute "tether,'' meaning they must be within 30 minutes of an emergency landing site.
"While we cannot eliminate risk from flight operations, we are confident the F-22 is safe now and on a path to being as safe as any other fighter we fly,'' Sholtis said.
The Air Force says there have been no breathing-related incidents in the F-22 fleet since March 8, though the aircraft has marked more than 9,000 sorties, or 12,000 flight hours, since then.
"We won't ever bury anything if there are issues, but so far, none,'' said Brig. Gen. Matthew Molloy, an F-22 pilot and commander of the 18th Wing on Japan's Kadena Air Base. "This airplane is absolutely vital to our national security.''
The F-22's woes have been especially troubling for the Air Force because it is in many ways its showcase aircraft and its most controversial. At $190 million apiece, not counting development costs, it was lambasted in Congress as an overpriced luxury item not suited to current conflicts.
But the flurry of investigations into its safety problems have also revealed a more fundamental issue within the Air Force itself: decades of budget-cutting and outsourcing that severely compromised its expertise on what kinds of physiological problems pilots might face when flying in the extremely demanding conditions posed by its most advanced aircraft.
"Over the past 20 years, the capabilities and expertise of the USAF to perform the critical function of Human Systems Integration have become insufficient,'' Gregory Martin, who led the study into its oxygen problems for the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board investigation that began in 2011, told the House subcommittee.
Martin said the program's decline cost the Air Force expertise on life support systems, altitude physiology and pilot health and safety. He said that was compounded by "inadequate research, knowledge, and experience for the unique operating environment of the F-22.''
Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon, the Air Combat Command's director of operations, concurred with those conclusions at a news conference last month. "We probably overshot the mark on how much downsizing we did in this study of physiology,'' he said.
Divers considers the demise of RAW-G to be emblematic of that decline.
"The RAW-G became a brain trust, for sure, and it pushed various things that otherwise would have been completely ignored or not even brought up as an issue,'' Divers said. "All of that died in 2007."
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