By Anna Meier
After years of looking into the F-22's pilot disorientation problems -- alleged to be just "oxygen" problems -- the Air Force has announced that it has everything under control. According to some defense experts, however, the Air Force still has a long way to go in proving its investigation is complete, reliable and transparent.
Last week, Director of Operations for Air Combat Command Maj. Gen. Charlie Lyon briefed reporters on the F-22 Life Support Task Force study he led, an investigation of the serious problems F-22 pilots have suffered in flight since at least 2008. The purpose of Lyons' briefing was fourfold:
- to reassure reporters and the public that, despite the earlier failure of the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board to pinpoint a cause of the problems, the Air Force has finally found the "major contributor": a valve on the pilots' pressure vests that causes them to inflate when they shouldn't;
- to use the supposedly unprecedented high altitude and high G capabilities of the F-22 to explain both the need for the vest and why the pilot and pressure vest problems were not anticipated or tested earlier;
- to deny the possibility that toxic fumes from the fighter's stealth skin or from onboard fluids were a cause; and
- to convince everyone that the Air Force's medical tests, physiological tests, chemical monitoring, and scientific analysis of each incident are so thorough and so objective that no one can doubt Gen. Lyons' conclusions -- despite the absence of a report documenting all this thoroughness and no promise that such a report will ever be released.
Each of these four points raises even more questions, including whether the Air Force is more focused on ending inquiry into the matter than actually solving the problem.
The first question is whether -- given the F-22's record-breaking incident rate, 23 reported cases of hypoxia and two fatal crashes since 2008 involving respiratory problems -- it's possible that a valve and vest that only put moderate pressure on the chest could cause such severe problems. Neither the F-22's pressure vest nor the valve itself are new. In fact, they were developed for the F-15 and F-16 24 years ago and proved to have so little benefit in relieving high G "blackouts" that both those aircraft stopped using them in 1994. And none of the F-22 pilots had previously complained of the corseting effect the valve supposedly causes.
Regarding the unprecedented altitudes and G forces experienced by F-22 pilots, Pierre Sprey, who played a major role in conceiving and designing both the F-16 and A-10 aircraft, is among the doubters:
The Chief of Staff and General Lyons have been pushing the notion that the F-22 is doing all kinds of hard maneuvering above 50,000 feet that no other fighter is capable of. This is simply false. First of all, the F-22 at Mach 1.6 can't sustain level flight above 47,000 feet without using afterburner -- and if it uses afterburner, within minutes it runs so low on fuel it has to leave combat to run for home or for refueling. Secondly, lots of fighters besides the F-22 can get to 60,000 feet or over, including the F-15, F-16A, Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen. And each of these fighters, having lighter wing loading than the F-22, can maneuver harder (that is, pull higher G) than the F-22, whether subsonic or supersonic and whether at high altitude or low altitude.
Sprey also raises concerns about Lyon's third and fourth points.
There are a lot of dangerous toxins in stealth coatings and aircraft fluids and many can be problematic even in extremely small quantities. Without knowing exactly what toxins the Air Force tested for, the parts per million accuracy of the measurement methods they used and many other key questions, you can't have any confidence in their conclusions.
Doing lots of standard tests on pilots who were incapacitated doesn't prove a thing, especially if the tests were performed hours or days after the possible exposure to toxins. There are toxins in stealth coatings that react so rapidly and corrosively with lung tissue that they are very hard to detect in blood, urine, or tissue samples. And these same toxins are known to have debilitating effects on both breathing and on brain function.
Even something as simple as the Air Force's distinction between 'unexplained' and 'explained' incidents raises huge suspicions -- after all, the more incidents you can put in the 'explained' box, the less of a problem you have to admit to. General Lyons was quick to categorize essentially all the maintenance people incidents as explained. What's the definition of an 'explained' incident? Why haven't we been shown a complete list of 'explained' incidents along with the alleged explanations?
In other words, after all the fancy words at General Lyons' briefing, the Air Force is saying 'trust us.' For someone like me who's spent nearly 50 years grappling with the Pentagon's bureaucratic distortions and cover-ups, 'trust us' isn't good enough.
Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project On Government Oversight, is also concerned about the disturbing lack of transparency in the investigation -- and that no written report of the Air Combat Command's methods or findings has yet been released. In particular, Wheeler takes issue with the Air Combat Command's response to questions POGO posed about the problems F-22 pilots and ground crew are experiencing. He notes that an Air Combat Command public affairs official told POGO a week ago:
There have been no written reports summarizing all the various testing and analysis efforts, findings, and results produced at this point. Updates to F-22 units, defense officials, Congress, and media representatives have been handled by face-to-face briefings and correspondence. Much of the data associated with the investigation falls under safety privileges that restrict its release. We would need to work through those if there is a final written report produced.
"The statement is so full of caveats it is unclear what nature of reports have been produced or are being written. It is also not clear when a 'final written report' would be produced, let alone made public. In other words, the Air Force has given us zero confidence its reporting will be complete and reliable," Wheeler said.
One example of the pitfalls of trusting the Air Force's verbal accounts of its own investigations: a Congressional office privy to one of these "face-to-face briefings" told POGO that the Air Force briefer lacked a basic understanding of the nature of the F-22's stealth coatings, where they are located on the aircraft, and how they are repaired. The Air Force official claimed, for example, that there was no stealth coating inside the engine inlets feeding the pilot's air system. In fact, those engine inlets are completely lined with stealth coatings, according to both F-22 design engineers and F-22 maintainers. Indeed, Air Force mishap reports make it clear there are also some stealth coatings inside the engines themselves.
Journalists have clearly been told a report is in the offing. According to FlightGlobal's David Majumdar, the Air Force has said it has "not yet finished" a written report of the tests performed on the F-22 and its pilots. Prior to last week's briefing, DefenseTech.org said it would have more answers "after the study is released," and at the briefing itself, Maj. Gen. Lyons said, "I've not done the final documentation."
On Friday, POGO received a communication from Air Combat Command that there is, indeed, a written report from the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board and it "will be published by the Air Force within the next couple weeks." POGO was also told the "task force's work" (presumably that headed by Maj. Gen. Lyon) "is not done" and "In the interim, the task force has been meeting its obligations on transparency by briefing its work regularly to F-22 units, members of Congress and their staffs, and news media."
"Whenever Lyon's documentation is completed, any report, whether it be from the Air Force's Scientific Advisory Board or the Lyon Task Force, is very likely to simply justify the already-presented conclusions, rather than follow a scientific method to reach a valid solution to the F-22 safety problem." Wheeler said. "That congressional offices and the press have already been misinformed about key elements of the problem is a huge concern," he added.
"A report of some sort is being written," Wheeler also said. "But it is also clear that it must be given extremely close scrutiny for completeness and validity by non-DoD independent experts. I suspect there will not even be any truly objective peer review inside the Air Force, let alone from without."
POGO agrees: Whether it's the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, or another independent body specializing in physiological safety issues, outside oversight of the investigation is essential to ensure that the lives of F-22 pilots and ground crew are adequately protected. The Air Force's first priority ought to be the well-being of its people. Requiring pilots to resume flying the F-22 after the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board announced its failure to find a cause -- and now telling them to continue flying without documenting the evidence -- says pretty clearly that the Air Force's priority is image and hardware, not people.
Anna Meier is a communications associate at the Project On Government Oversight.