60 Minutes Over Langley

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F-22 pilots Josh Wilson and Jeremy Gordon

A pair of Air Force F-22 pilots from Virginia’s Langley Air Force Base is swapping the air for the airwaves Sunday night, explaining to CBS’ 60 Minutes why they’ve opted not to continue flying the F-22, the Air Force’s hottest fighter. Major Jeremy Gordon and Captain Josh Wilson detail their concerns – shared by other Raptor drivers – that the aircraft doesn’t guarantee them sufficient oxygen.

Is the F-22 safe to fly? “I’m not comfortable answering that question,” Gordon responds. “I’m not comfortable flying in the F-22 right now.” Hypoxia – a lack of oxygen that has persisted in the F-22 despite vain Air Force probes to figure out why – is dangerous. “The onset,” Gordon says, “is insidious.”

Wilson tells Lesley Stahl of his dogfight against hypoxia during an F-22 flight last year. “It was…kind of a surreal experience,” he says, taking “immense concentration” to perform simple tasks. Pulling an emergency oxygen ring proved daunting: “I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t remember what part of the aircraft it was in.”

That apparently was the challenge facing Air Force Captain Jeff Haney, who experienced breathing problems before his fatal F-22 crash in Alaska in 2010. The Air Force blamed Haney, and not his F-22, for the crash.

All of this is embarrassing to the Air Force, which bought 179 operational F-22s for more than $400 million each. Designed to combat the next-generation of Soviet fighters – which never materialized – the planes have sat on the tarmac despite the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya raging in the skies above them. They have no role in today’s wars, and by the time there’s someone to battle, they’ll be obsolete.

In the seven months since the grounded F-22 was returned to flight – after experts could not pinpoint the source of the breathing problems – there have been 11 more cases of hypoxia reported.

That’s fairly rare, but as these pilots step into the limelight, one thing is clear: another mysterious crash and the F-22 could be in a steep dive from which recovery may prove impossible.