Pressure Vests Not Cure-All to F-22 Oxygen Problems

Air Force and Navy engineers might not have solved the riddle after all to what’s causing F-22 pilots to suffocate when flying the vaunted fifth generation fighter jet.

F-22 pilots stopped wearing pressure vests in June after it was discovered the vests that prevent pilots from blacking out chronically failed and restricted the pilots’ breathing. Air Force officials claimed to not have any documented cases of hypoxia since ditching the vests that maintain blood flow during the high-G maneuvers the pilots perform.

The Air Force thought it finally had found the “root cause” that had long escaped the Air Force’s investigative team.

That is until the Air Force agreed to escort Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., to watch F-22 operations. Bumiller writes in this morning’s story that she witnessed a pilot pull the emergency oxygen handle.

“But last week, as Air Force officials escorted a reporter and a photographer to the Langley flight line to watch F-22s roaring on and off the runway for an ostensible good-news story, it happened again. A pilot pulled his emergency oxygen handle sometime after landing because of what the Air Force characterized as “discomfort” from intermittent air flow into the pilot’s mask during flight. The Air Force is investigating but so far has said little.”

The oxygen issues have stumped the Air Force for almost two years now. An issue that sort of flew under the radar while Congress and the media were distracted by the problems with the F-35’s development, two F-22 pilots brought the oxygen problems out into the national spotlight with their appearance on 60 Minutes.

Air Force leaders have intermittently grounded the F-22 fleet as they have explored the problems and restricted the distance pilots can fly from base and the altitude the fighters reach. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has instructed the Air Force not to fly F-22s more than a 30-minute flight away from base and pilots must stay under a 44,000 foot ceiling.

This has not kept the Air Force from deploying an F-22 squadron, which it did in April when it sent the fighters to United Arab Emirates’ Al Dafra Air Base. Capt. Phil Ventura, an Air Force spokesman, declined back in April that the deployment was a threat to Iran as many speculated.

“Such deployments strengthen military-to-military relationships, promote sovereign and regional security, improve combined tactical air operations and enhance interoperability of forces, equipment and procedures,” Ventura said.

Engineers and scientists will go back to the drawing board it appears as the pressure to find the “root cause” increases. Senator Mark Warner told the New York Times that he’s been “pressing” the Air Force “about the explanation for this, and we still don’t have an answer.”

Do the inspectors go back and re-examine the F-22’s On-board Oxygen Generation System and questions still loom when the service can install an automatic backup oxygen system to protect pilots. A team of doctors and engineers remain on call to collect data after any pilot feels light headed after an F-22 flight. The question is: When will it lead to answers and save the F-22 from itself?

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • blight_

    Get some F-22 parts, heat them in an oven and vent the gases into a cage full of rabbits, gerbils, guinea pigs or model organism of choice. Assess for hypoxia. Perform necropsy after sacking.

  • leeretarmy

    I can’t help but wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with all of the reliable Chinese parts we are using in or tech heavy equipment.

  • usmc

    just a thought here. as the old saying goes to much of a good thing is a bad thing. could the obogs be generating to much oxygen therefore leading to oxygen poisening?

  • mpower6428

    i thought all the smart kids went to the airforce….

    • Ben

      It’s not just the Air Force. Nobody can figure it out.

      • Juuso

        Pierre Sprey thinks that problem might be stealth coating of the F-22. I wonder if there has been any research about long term health effects, wouldn’t be too suprised if F-22 pilots have risk of getting lung cancer.

        • Ben

          Yes, with the exception of Sprey’s speculation. I’m honestly inclined to believe that may be the problem, however just as he pointed out, the USAF is likely turning a blind eye to it simply because a fix would be too costly. That being said, we may never know if Sprey is right.

        • William C.

          Problem with Sprey is that he is quite… say “motivated” against the F-22 and stealth aircraft in general. If he had his way the USAF would be flying F-16s without anything more than an IRST system and range-only radar.

    • WRG01

      I suspect you’re just being funny. Ok, I’ll bite….In response to your quip, I must point out that USAF personnel are smart enough not to have enlisted in one of the other services. (Disclaimer: Former soldier and a former airmen…served as NCO in both services).

  • Rod

    Interesting that the intermittent air flow into the pilot’s mask was during flight, but he didn’t pull the emergency oxygen handle until after landing. Can anyone shed some light as to why he would wait?

    • blight_

      Perhaps the fear of multi-tasking and possibly flying into the terrain, like the Elmendorf pilot.

      Pilot probably decided he was close enough to attempt a landing and landed early out of an abundance of caution.

    • Rod

      Thanks blight.

      If the air the pilot is breathing is drawn externally from the atmosphere, it would be before the combustion process, and is therefore unlikely that the problem is from the exhaust.

      Since the ground crew experienced similar symptoms, it makes sense to say it’s the aircraft’s coating that caused the problem because the coating is in front of the intake and within the proximity of where the ground crew would be working.
      The problem with this conclusion is that why can’t they detect it when the aircraft is sitting in the hangar?

      I wonder if the coating is being volatized by thermodynamic changes experienced in flight (ie pressure, temperature changes) and continues to behave like so for a short period of time after. If that is the case, it would explain why the hypoxia like symptoms being reported are so isolated in time but not space. It would also explain why he still felt the need to pull the handle after landing (which a faulty compressor wouldn’t at standard temperatures and pressures).

      Just applying another scientific discipline to a field I know nothing about. Take it easy on flaming my $0.02.

    • adam

      assuming your talking about the 60 min story. watch that segment again, and the effects of hypoxia. he knew he needed pull the emergincy handle, but he could not remember ware it was. could not remember. hypoxia can be some scarry stuff.

  • Mark

    rod don’t no if it has something to do with the way it is pulled To manually activate the oxygen system, pilots are required to first pull the green ring up and out of its slot, before pulling it directly towards them. According to the Air Force, this action can be the equivalent of pulling a 40lb weight, or more. maybe he did not feel the effects until he landed

  • 4FingerOfBouron

    Probably needs 12 volts instead of 9 volts. Typographical error in assembly manual.

  • Uranium238

    In the end, they should just invent some high-G space suit and incoporate LOx. Whether the coatings are toxic or not, at least the pilot would be protected from both the altitude and chemicals.

  • JackBlack

    So tinfoil hats didn’t help?

  • Tad

    Really, nothing to worry about, it’s merely “discomfort”, according to the AF.

  • Lance

    Easy fix to this. Modify the F-15s oxygen system to the F-22 and NO Chinese made parts!

  • McPosterdoor

    Why did the pilot have his oxygen on while landing… at sea level @ Langley?

  • Chops

    So with the oxygen being conditioned engine bleed air, I wonder if it couldn’t be a engine coating or wiring coating causing the problem when it reaches a certain temperature?

    • PlaneGuyB1B

      Jet aircraft have been using engine bleed air to pressurize cabins for years. There is always the possibility of contamination, but the technology is proven.

  • Chuck

    The problem now is how do you differentiate a real problem from the nocebo effect (same thing as placebo effect, except you use “nocebo” when it is a detrimental effect)? In other words, there may be (or may have been) a real problem with the oxygen system. But even if they have fixed it (or fix it in the future), pilots are going to be a little paranoid and tend to think any unusual feeling is from lack of oxygen.

  • Howe

    future headline “AND THE NEXT-GEN FIGHTER JET CONTRACT GOES TO…NORTHROP”

    I bet the the USAF is wishing they would have chosen the (better) YF-23 now…
    So I think, unless Lockheed comes up with an amazing aircraft…the AF wouldn’t give them the next fighter contract, if nothing else, simply because they can’t fix the overpriced raptor.

  • paperpushermj

    Just curious … Do the Chinese have the same problem?

  • B.E. McCormick

    Did some moron just choose to forget that we had ground crew problems around this puppy when the engines were running also? Or were they just “hoping” we would forget and buy into the pretend solution.

  • citanon

    It seems to me the intermittent air-flow during that flight is a separate and different problem from the hypoxia.

    In case of the hypoxia symptoms, the issue was not that airflow was interrupted, but that the pilots experienced hypoxia anyways.

    I do agree that an automatic backup system might be a good idea at this point.

  • Rob Damon

    Don’t pilots in other high altitude planes (SR-71,U-2,X-15) wear what amounts to a full space suite?? And these things are flying at 60-70K altitudes.

    How about converting one or two the F-22’s to accommodate a pilot in a “David Clark S1030 gold suit” and run around the clock ops and see what happens?

  • mpower6428

    this problem will be solved in january 2013, right after christmas bonus’s come in.

  • Politically Correct

    Why not just replace the OBOGS with Liquid lox converters? Obviously the current oxygen system is worthless and broken. How often do you hear of pilots in aircraft with lox converters getting hypoxia.

  • nchie

    May the F22 stealth coating is much tha it coats the oxigen. I guess Russians can assist. Swallow tour pride and call for help

    • William C.

      You type like your suffering from hypoxia.

    • blight_

      I’ll coat your oxygen atoms with…smaller atoms!

  • Zhongnanhai

    This is a joke.

  • Rob

    B2 and F117s have the same prob?

  • dockem

    30 minutes from a base?????? Geee, no in flight refueling, no combat or escort duties. GREAT plane!! Let’s more money. Contractors love it!!

  • traindodger

    I read an article a while back that said that they’d found burned polyalphaolefin in the pilots’ bloodstreams. The power supplies for the avionics on this bird are cooled with liquid polyalphaolefin. Put two and two together, and there you go.

    • B.E. McCormick

      And that would explain the problem with the ground crews also.

      I just don’t understand why they would point to such a red herring that does not fit the known facts instead of making up a more plausible lie. It is too obviously wrong, so it has to be intentional. I would hate to think our people are that stooopid.

  • aaron

    This is my theory…and just a theory.

    The obogs system used on the raptor is probably driven by a accessory drive off the engine turbine, taking in intake air for obogs as well as some stealth coating that is used in the airplanes weeping skin. or possibly some kind of chemicle from the engine components. The obogs intakes the stealth coating and the prolonged exposure to this is exacerbated by descending back down to altitude forcing these chemicals into the blood stream leading to some other type of hypoxia besides hypoxia hypoxia or possibly a new kind of physiological condition altogether.

    on a side not I remember reading about some groom lake employees who suffered from illnesses when working on have blue.

  • Geoff.

    Hi All,
    Why can’t they have continued using the F-15 Oxygen system after all the F-22 is just a pumped version of that aircraft when getting down to basics ?

    Geoff.

    • P&Wjjg

      The F-15 has zero in common with the F-22 In materials, manufacturing and performance. The young buck can fight at over 70,000′ while the elder fights at up to 60,000′.

  • TomUK

    Can’t anyone spell or punctuate any more ?

  • Matt

    Durrr… we fixed it with this here carbon canister… see?

    Wait, no! Wait…

    Durrr we fixed it with this magic vest, see?

    Durrrrr….

  • Gunnie

    Hate to think that the F-35 might use the same systems ? What’s the bet ?

  • hellbound1339

    Seriously, does anyone have ANY MORE info??? It’s a little sketchy here…

  • DeeJay

    Instead of selecting the American OBOGS supplier, Lockheed selected a British vendor. The US vendor’s OBOGS has been used successfully in the T-45, AV-8B, F-15, F-16, and F-18 jets and several more since the 1980’s. Could false pride of ownership prevent trying the US system?

  • kittyhawk

    Why not have the manufacturer send in the designer, engineer, etc to see if the product we got is the system they designed? Have them check the computer system/program which controls it – Are the materials used, standing up to the flight conditions?
    Remember the mars flight that missed the planet because someone fed in kilometers rather than miles to the program? Why not put in a sensor system to measure airflow to see if oxygen is being supplied as needed at all times?
    For want of a nail…..

  • PlaneGuyB1B

    How about temporarily fitting pilots with bio-sensors that measure and record vital information, such as heartbeat, blood pressure… BLOOD OXYGEN LEVEL. When a “hypoxia” incident happens, download the bio-sensor to see if it is hypoxia… or something else.

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