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Pilots as Lab Rats: The Reprehensible Risk-Taking on the F-22 Raptor

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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In May of 2011, the Air Force took the unusual and radical step of grounding their entire F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft fleet because it appeared that something was wrong with the pilot’s oxygen system. One crash that killed a pilot looked like the oxygen system might have been a factor in the crash. An usually high percentage of pilots, 14 incidents in three years, were getting confused while flying and even on the ground days after they landed.

But the grounding of this controversial plane was an embarrassment to the Air Force and the company that built the plane, Lockheed Martin. So, the Air Force lifted the grounding in September 2011 to get the planes back into the air and even shipped some to the Middle East to be a “deterrent” to Iran with its “stealthy” technology. The problem with this action was that the Air Force, even after their internal investigations and giving Lockheed a $24 million contract to find the problem, was unable to figure out the problem and still sent pilots back into the air.

SolutionsThese pilots now had to contend with flying the plane, often over populated areas near US military bases, while worrying that they could become woozy and disoriented, either because of the new gold-plated oxygen system or some suspected poisoning from the aircraft, possibly even from the stealth coating that covers the plane to help reduce its radar signature.

Two of these pilots had had enough with risking their lives. Capt. Josh Wilson and Maj. Jeremy Wilson took the risky but brave step of telling the Air Force that they did not want to fly the F-22 until the Air Force had fixed the problems that threatened to disorient and possibly kill the pilots and others. They both were threatened by the Air Force that their careers would be ruined. However, they felt so strongly about it that they took the unusual step of telling a member of Congress and CBS’s “60 Minutes” about the threat to pilots in flying the plane.

Captain Wilson told “60 Minutes”: “We’ve got two theories with the jet right now. On the one hand, we’re not getting the quality or the quantity of oxygen we need. On the other hand, they’re thinking contaminants. Somehow, we’re not getting what we need, or we’re getting poisoned.”

The first possibility of the oxygen system not working could be traced to the fact that it wasn’t a simple oxygen bottle system; oxygen bottles have been used by pilots since 1913. Instead, the Air Force (most likely with the encouragement of Lockheed to increase the cost) decided on an onboard oxygen-generating system (OBOGS). This takes compressed air from the compressor stage of the jet engine and uses a molecular sieve to extract nitrogen, thus increasing the oxygen percentage of the breathing air it sends up to the pilot’s mask. Two molecular sieves are needed so they can provide the oxygen while the other cleans itself – a complicated way to get vital oxygen to the brains of the pilots. The Air Force latched onto this as the most likely cause of pilot disorientation, but they really couldn’t prove it.

It does seem odd to take breathing air from the jet engine, a source that could include dangerous contaminants like carbon monoxide or unburnt fuel if the engine had problems, to be fed into the lungs of pilots. It would be like having your car’s fresh air taken from the carburetor in the hopes that the fuel mixture would not leach into the air you’re breathing.

But there was a catch in blaming this problem only on the OBOGS. An earlier plane using this Byzantine oxygen system is the F-18; it, too, has a long history of pilot confusion from lack of oxygen, including two fatal accidents. But the occurrence rate for the F-18 was much, much lower and there were none of the serious, lingering aftereffects the F-22 pilots are reporting. F-22 pilot Major Gordon told “60 Minutes” about “Raptor cough,” as the pilots call it: “In a room of F-22 pilots, the vast majority will be coughing a lot of the times. Other things – laying down for bed at night after flying and getting just the spinning room feeling, dizziness, tumbling, vertigo kind of stuff.”

What was even more unexplainable was that five F-22 maintenance workers also showed the same symptoms and they obviously were not oxygen deprived while working on the plane. The Department of Defense (DoD) admitted this to a reporter in a briefing this week:

CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah. The first reported hypoxia-related event was in April of ’08. There’s been a total of 12 reported between that time and January 11th.

Q: That 12 doesn’t include the five guys on the ground, though, who suffered – the maintainers who suffered hypoxia-like symptoms, does it?

CAPT. KIRBY: No, I don’t believe it does, but again, I would refer you to the Air Force on that.

But the Air Force grabbed onto the lack-of-oxygen diagnosis, called hypoxia, and put in two quick “fixes” so they could get this troubled and expensive plane back into the air. They gave the pilots a pulse oximeter clipped to a finger to read the pilots’ blood oxygen level to warn them, hopefully, that they were in trouble; they also provided a breathing air charcoal filter in an attempt to absorb contaminants. In the months after the United States Air Force (USAF) forced the F-22 pilots to fly again, the “hypoxia” rate quadrupled. There were two incidents of “hypoxia” within the same formation. One of them was Major Gordon and he decided that the plane was too dangerous to fly.

A big question remained after the generals ordered the F-22 into the air again: why do the F-22’s pilots and ground mechanics have such long-lasting symptoms, symptoms that none of the F-18 pilots report? What does the F-22 have that the F-18 doesn’t have? The prime suspect is stealth technology, which includes a very complicated laminated skin, many layers bonded together with secret and highly toxic glues.

That skin is so vulnerable to damage on the ground or if the plane is flown through rain or dust, the skin has to be relaminated so that there are no cracks or edges to ruin its “stealthy” radar profile. This happens so frequently that about half the F-22’s record-setting maintenance burden is consumed in fixing the skin.

It has already been know for years that the composites and adhesives used on all stealth aircraft can be extremely toxic. I worked with sources who were contaminated with toxins while working on the B-2 bomber production line in Lockheed’s Burbank production facility. The employees were getting odd illnesses and were diagnosed by their doctors with being poisoned by some type of contaminant. Appallingly, the Air Force would not let the doctors know what the workers were exposed to, claiming all the stealth toxic materials were too classified. These workers tried to find out through legal and other means to no avail and many had serious and life threatening health problems. The Los Angeles Times did an exposé of this problem all the way back to 1989. The toxic and carcinogenic ingredients of stealth coatings remain highly classified to this day.

But the Air Force hates to admit that their highly classified stealth – their major justification for every new airplane they have bought for the last thirty years – could poison and condemn their workers, mechanics and pilots to cancer. Instead, they circled the wagons around the “hypoxia” theory, then ordered the pilots back into the air without knowing or fixing the root cause. Asked about the danger to pilots’ lives, the generals declared the risks acceptable, citing the need to keep flying to collect data in the hopes of getting to the bottom of their problem. In other words, they were comfortable with using their highly F-22 trained pilots as lab rats to avoid the embarrassment – and threat to the USAF budget – of a grounded half billion-dollar fighter.

The pilots apparently felt differently. Major Gordon told “60 Minutes” that he believes a “vast majority, even though it is a silent majority” of the F-22 pilots do not want to fly the plane without knowing what is causing these life-threatening symptoms.

After the “60 Minutes” interview, there has been mounting pressure on the Air Force from senators, Congressmen and the media to deal with the unconscionable risks to the “lab rat” pilots. So, this week, on May 15, 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta came up with a fig leaf to try to appease the critics. From Wired’s Danger Room:

For five years, America’s most expensive fighter jets have been poisoning their pilots and crew. On Tuesday, the Defense Secretary finally stepped in – restricting the flights of the F-22 Raptor, and ordering the Air Force to begin an “expedited installation” of an automatic backup oxygen system for the entire fleet of Raptors, Pentagon spokesman George Little tells reporters. But Panetta is allowing the stealthy dogfighter to keep flying – for now.

The new oxygen systems will undergo flight tests through November, with installation beginning in December and proceeding in January 2013 at a rate of 10 planes per month. Additionally, the Air Force will have to fly its Raptors near a “proximate landing location” to make sure that pilots can land quickly if their planes’ oxygen systems begin to fail. And the Air Force will both work with the Navy and NASA to figure out the Raptor’s mysterious engineering flaw – whose root cause the Pentagon still does not know – and must now give Panetta monthly reports on its progress.

Even though it is unclear just how close the “proximate landing location” is required to be, Secretary Panetta is hoping that disoriented pilots, who may or not have hypoxia, will be able to find the runway in time. The Air Force also weighed in with a talking points press release to soothe the Congress and the media, emphasizing how much they care about their pilots and how wrong all the critics are.

So, are there really any clues of what really might be causing this dangerous problem? Pierre Sprey, the co-designer of the F-16 fighter and the A-10 ground support jet, has many sources inside the Pentagon and he has pieced together many of the inconsistencies in the Air Force’s story and may have a better clue to what is really happening to the F-22 (maybe the Air Force should have given him a $24 million contract instead of Lockheed to fix their own mistakes).

From Pierre Sprey:

… One of the two pilots had such a severe in-flight hypoxia incident that, upon landing, the aeromed doctors put him in a hyperbaric chamber. That is not a treatment for oxygen deprivation; it is, in fact, a treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning (and carbon monoxide is one of the prime candidate causes being considered by the USAF’s hastily-convened scientific panel).

Combine the above with a few more observations from my reading of the F-18 OBOGS problems and from my analysis of F-18 and F-22 “hypoxia” incident rates:

1. No equivalent of the “Raptor cough” or of persistent dizziness/vertigo has been reported among F-18 pilots or in the F-18 OBOGS aeromed literature.

2. Persistent coughing and vertigo are not reported in the medical literature as standard after effects of carbon monoxide poisoning.

3. The pre-2004 F-18 “hypoxia” rate was .55 per 100,000 hours; it has worsened by a factor of 8 since then, for reasons apparently unknown to the Navy. The F-22 rate, before the grounding, was running at 25 to 30 per 100,000 hours – at least 5 times worse than the current F-18 rate. Since the grounding, the F-22 rate has worsened by another factor of 4. In the CBS show the two pilots termed the current F-22 rate “astronomical”; they are exactly right.

Based on the above, I would venture the following:

1. Most of the F-22 “hypoxia” incidents are unlikely to be due to the same cause as the F-18 incidents. Why? I’d say the F-18 OBOGS incidents, given the lack of reported coughing and persistent vertigo, are probably due to inadequate oxygen levels from the OBOGS or carbon monoxide leaking into the engine bleed air that feeds the OBOGS. Given that so many F-22 pilots have persistent coughing and vertigo means that, even though a small fraction of incidents could be due to oxygen deprivation or carbon monoxide, most of the F-22 incidents have to be due to some toxin in the F-22 breathing air supply that has persistent after effects and that is NOT present in the F-18’s air supply.

2. There are, of course, lots of candidates for onboard sources of noxious fumes that could sneak into the breathing air supply and cause some kind of persistent coughing/vertigo, e.g., hydraulic fluid, combustion byproducts, off-gassing glues, overheated plastics or composites, etc., etc. But if you’re looking for a source of toxic fumes that is both present on the F-22 and NOT present on the F-18, one that comes to mind pretty quickly is the whole class of stealth coatings. Almost all of them are laminates bonded together with highly noxious adhesives in either the epoxy or the acrylic families, just the kind of adhesives that can offgas toxins for weeks or even months after application (just like the now-notorious adhesives used for laying down wall-to-wall carpeting). Now combine that possibility with the fact that half of all F-22 maintenance is repair of the stealth coatings. That means that these noxious adhesives are being freshly reapplied all the time. And such a source would certainly be consistent with maintenance people on the ground reporting the same kind of “hypoxia” symptoms as pilots reporting on in-flight incidents.

On second thought, maybe that’s the reason the USAF is having so much trouble coming up with a cause for their F-22 problem. Can you imagine how quickly the generals would put the kibosh on any aeromed types wanting to research whether stealth coatings are making pilots sick and causing fatal crashes? And they have a made-to-order excuse for that kibosh: “Sorry doctor, you just don’t have the necessary code word clearances.”

The total irony of all this is that the pilots are risking their lives to be lab rats for a stealth plane for no good military reason. It has been long known in open literature that such radar absorbing skin can be defeated by old-fashioned long wavelength radar, radars that the Russians have continued to use ever since WWII and that they are currently selling all over the world as anti-stealth radars. The short wavelength radars we prefer are somewhat absorbed by stealth coatings, but the long wavelength radars used throughout Russia and in much of the rest of the world are completely unaffected by any form of aircraft stealth coatings or special stealth shapes.

I worked with Knut Royce of Hearst Newspapers to expose this fundamental problem with stealth technology in 1982, but the “miracle” of stealth technology – and the miracle of stealth money – has built a constituency in the Pentagon and the Congress. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a technology that can be defeated by radars available on the open market ever since 1945; see here. Now, our best pilots are being ordered to fly as lab rats in order to avoid admitting that our easily defeated stealth technology could have been poisoning pilots, workers and mechanics for years.

So, why is this happening? Regular readers of this column will know what I am about to say. The more expensive the plane, the more power, prestige, budget and good retirement jobs the Air Force has, and the more contractors like Lockheed will make in profits. And the F-22 is by far the most expensive fighter in history: according to General Accounting Office, current program unit price is $425 million and still rising, promising to reach half a billion dollars each. Many believe that the F-22 was canceled, but actually former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was able to keep the F-22 buy to its original quantity, bolstered only because of pressure from good-government groups that pushed President Obama into threatening to veto any more F-22s. But they still don’t have control of the price of the plane, so the budget promises to continue to grow.

Although most of the generals and high-ranking civilians who have helped fund this plane are still in the DoD and have not had a chance to go through the revolving door, they can look to Col. Sean Frisbee, the former F-22 program director, for inspiration and hope of a lucrative job in the defense industry if they don’t rock the boat or crackdown on Lockheed’s failures. Colonel Frisbee retired from the military after twenty-three years in January 2012; within that same month, he became a vice president of a military contractor that manufactures unpiloted aircraft in California.

Who will stand up and say that the emperor has no clothes on the F-22? Two brave pilots have gone first and, despite military whistleblower laws, will probably destroy their careers even with the help of some in Congress. They started the process at great personal risk, and it is now up to the public, the media and hopefully some brave souls in Congress to stop the nonsense of flying this plane while it is still endangering the lives of pilots. It is also up to all of us, despite the censorship of heavy-handed classification, to publicly question the effectiveness of the stealth skin that is poisoning those who make it and use it. Hopefully, we will stop this madness before we kill or condemn to cancer more of our “lab rats” while squandering hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars on ineffective stealth technology like the F-22, F-35, B-2 etc. It won’t be easy to stop, but we need to honor these two pilots and protect the other 198 F-22 pilots who are now, once again, risking their lives to save the Air Force and Lockheed any more embarrassment.

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