Air Force’s F-22s Are Flying Again: Of Smoking Guns, and Smoking Holes

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The Air Force has decided to let its fleet of F-22 fighters back into the air beginning Wednesday without fixing the problem that led to their grounding in the first place. Concerns that Raptor pilots were passing out due to a lack of oxygen — there’s another reason for drones — led to the fleet-wide grounding May 3.

After extensive flight tests with a heavily-instrumented F-22, the Air Force and its Scientific Advisory Board were unable to pinpoint any problem aboard the $353 million-per-copy planes. “We now have enough insight from recent studies and investigations that a return to flight is prudent and appropriate,” says General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff.

What’s really amazing is this: the problem was serious enough to ground the planes, but apparently not serious enough to fix. Were the dozen pilots who suffered from hypoxia imagining things? Why are toxins — like anti-freeze and propane — turning up in the blood of groggy F-22 pilots post-flight?

According to the independent Air Force Times:

“There is a lot of nasty stuff getting pumped into the pilots’ bloodstream through what they’re breathing from that OBOGS [On-Board Oxygen Generation System]. That’s fact,” one former F-22 pilot said. “How bad it is, what type it is, exactly how much of it, how long — all these things have not been answered.”

The line of inquiry may shed new light on the death of Capt. Jeff “Bong” Haney, a 525th Fighter Squadron pilot who was killed when his F-22 crashed last November near Anchorage. Sources said that in Haney’s last few radio calls before his jet disappeared, he sounded drunk, a classic sign of hypoxia. Haney was known as a prodigiously skilled aviator who was in line to attend the elite Air Force Weapons School.

The Air Force has said it doesn’t believe the oxygen system played a role in Haney’s death.

The planes — the most costly fighters in human history — have never been used in combat despite the three wars — Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — the nation has waged since the F-22s went operational in 2005.

Independent Air Force historian Robert Dorr wrote earlier this month in Air Force Times that the service was rightly taking its time to solve the problem. “Something…caused Haney to crash. It could have been a flaw in the On-Board Oxygen Generating System, letting carbon monoxide inside the cockpit, or perhaps another malfunction with the fighter,” he said. “Whatever the problem, it will eventually be fixed — and the 158 Raptors will return to the skies.”

Sadly, that’s not the case. “We’re managing the risks with our aircrews, and we’re continuing to study the F-22’s oxygen systems and collect data to improve its performance,” Schwartz says of the plane. “We do not have a smoking gun here.”

Here’s hoping there are no more potentially oxygen-related smoking holes, either.