A highly-decorated F-22 pilot says he's "not comfortable" flying the nation's top fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor. The F-22 was grounded last year, after a rash of incidents in which pilots experienced severe disorientation from a lack of oxygen while flying. The Air Force resumed flying the plane after four months without finding the cause or fixing the plane.
The pilot, Maj. Jeremy Gordon, and another F-22 flyer, Capt. Josh Wilson, speak for the first time as military whistleblowers under the protection of U.S. Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). All three appear on 60 Minutes in an interview with Lesley Stahl to be broadcast Sunday, May 6 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Gordon and Wilson, both veterans of the 2003 Iraq war, stopped flying the F-22 last January, and tell 60 Minutes they are not the only F-22 pilots who have chosen not to fly. With the incidents continuing unabated, Wilson says, "I think we need to reassess why we got back in the air in the first place."
Gordon and Wilson are among the F-22 pilots who have experienced the low-oxygen condition called hypoxia, which the Air Force speculates may be caused by a problem in the pilots' oxygen system. "This is something strapped to my face under which I have no control of what's coming through that tube, which means there may be a point when I don't have control over myself when I'm flying," he tells Stahl. Asked by Stahl whether the plane was safe to fly, Gordon replies, "I'm not comfortable answering that question. I'm not comfortable flying in the F-22 right now." He points to the danger of hypoxia. "The onset of [hypoxia] is insidious. Some pilots will go the entire mission, land and not know anything went wrong," he tells Stahl, relating the time a pilot finished a mission unaware he had hit a tree in-flight.
Wilson describes his battle to overcome his hypoxia as he flew the F-22 last year. "It was...kind of a surreal experience," he says, taking "immense concentration" to perform simple tasks. He says he followed his training and attempted to pull an emergency oxygen ring. "I couldn't find it. I couldn't remember what part of the aircraft it was in." The pilots were told to keep flying despite the danger the incidents posed to them and, potentially, to people on the ground, so the Air Force could learn more about what has wrong with the plane. "We have been told that we are data collectors," says Wilson.
In the seven months since the grounding of the F-22 ended, there have been 11 more reported incidents of hypoxia - a number Gordon characterizes as "astronomical" and the Air Force confirms is unprecedented. Gen. Michael Hostage, who heads up the Air Combat Command which runs the F-22 program, defends the decision to keep the Raptor flying, saying: "I don't see a reason to stand the plane down...Ideally, I want the risk as low as possible. I'm not able to drive it as low in this airplane as I am with others because of this unknown circumstance, but I have driven it down to a level where we believe we can safely operate the airplane," he tells Stahl. "I just have not found the problem yet."
Told by Stahl that she has heard that F-22 pilots are so worried, they have taken out additional life insurance, Wilson says, "They are. Absolutely. We are waiting for something to happen and if it happens, nobody's going to be surprised."