Is the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet making pilots sick?

Two military pilots won't fly the F-22 Raptor, the Air Force's most sophisticated fighter plane, because they say a lack of oxygen during flight is causing disorientation and worse

Military officers rarely speak out against their services, but in our lead story you'll hear from two elite pilots who question the safety of Air Force's most sophisticated, stealthy, and expensive fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor. Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Joshua Wilson have chosen to stop flying the F-22 because they say during some flights they and other pilots have experienced oxygen deprivation, disorientation, and worse. They are concerned about their safety in the air, as well as the long-term health consequences. The Air Force says it is doing all it can to investigate and solve the problem, and are keeping the jets in the air with careful supervision of the pilots.


The following script is from "The Raptor" which originally aired on May 6, 2012. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Karen Sughrue, producer.

The shiniest jewel in the Air Force is its F-22 Raptor, a sleek, stealth fighter jet that the Pentagon says can outgun and outmaneuver any combat plane anywhere in the world. But for all its prowess, the Raptor has yet to be used in combat. It was designed to go up against an enemy with a sophisticated air force, which means it sat on the sidelines during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving its 200 pilots to fly mainly training missions.

But the Raptor - the most expensive fighter ever - has been plagued by a mysterious flaw that causes its pilots to become disoriented while at the controls from a lack of oxygen.

Tonight, you will hear from two of them who have come to believe the jet is endangering their lives and those of the people in communities they fly over.

They are so concerned they have taken the extraordinary step of risking their careers by appearing on 60 Minutes in uniform -- and without permission -- to blow the whistle on a plane they love to fly.

When you hear about the F-22, it's always in superlatives: the newest, fastest, stealthiest, highest-flying, most gravity-defying, enemy-killing combat machine in the sky.

Josh Wilson: It's invincible. It's the bottom line.

Its pilots are highly-trained, and competitively chosen, the elite jet jockeys of the Air Force.

Jeremy Gordon: I firmly believe in the aircraft.

Major Jeremy Gordon and Captain Josh Wilson are with the Virginia Air National Guard, based at Langley Air Force Base near Norfolk. They're two of only 200 pilots qualified to fly the F-22.

Josh Wilson: Its ability to go up into lethal force where we need it. It is absolutely unmatched.

Josh has been flying it for two years, Jeremy for six.

Lesley Stahl: What makes it unique when you're flying it?

Jeremy Gordon: The ability to know what's going on all the way around you all the time.

Josh Wilson: It is just a phenomenal, phenomenal machine.

Both flew combat missions in the Iraq War. Major Gordon was awarded the Air Force's highest honor for heroism: the Distinguished Flying Cross. In Air Force evaluations, he was called quote "a superstar...flawless." Captain Wilson was called: "a superb officer with intense warrior spirit."

Josh Wilson: It was, you know, kind of a surreal experience.

Josh says that during a routine F-22 training mission in February 2011, he suddenly realized he was losing control.

Josh Wilson: Several times during the flight, I had to really concentrate, immense concentration on just doing simple, simple tasks. Our training tells you if you suspect something's probably going on, go ahead and pull your emergency oxygen and come back home. When I did make that decision to pull the emergency oxygen ring, I couldn't find it. I couldn't remember, you know, what part of the aircraft it was in.

Lesley Stahl: So this emergency ring was exactly where it should've been?

Josh Wilson: Uh-huh.

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