Secretary of defence Leon Panetta has personally laid down some very heavy restrictions on the beleaguered F-22 Raptor. Increasingly concerned about oxygen-supply problems, Panetta announced that flights must “remain within the proximity of potential landing locations,” reports CNN Security Blog.
Like a kid whose parents won’t let him cross the street and insist he be home before dark, the F-22 can now venture only a short distance from its home base before being forced to return. Close enough that if a pilot gets sick, he can high-tail it home and get the hell out of the cockpit.
The order is officially intended to ensure a pilot can land and recover in case of “unanticipated physiological conditions.”
At a press conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters that the Air Force is “speeding up the installation of an automatic backup oxygen system in all the fighters,” according to CNN.
Little also announced Panetta has requested a monthly progress report from the Air Force as it attempts to determine the cause of “hypoxia-like symptoms” (lack of oxygen) some pilots have suffered.
The new guideline on how far pilots can fly in the F-22 isn’t clearly defined, perhaps because leaders don’t yet know at what distance a flight could become unsafe.
A CNN excerpt from the press call:
QUESTION: How far can they fly, essentially, under that new guideline? You said that they don’t do any long-duration flights, so what’s their limitation now?
KIRBY: I believe it’s situational more than anything. I don’t – I don’t believe there’s a nautical-mile limit here. It’s just about an appropriate level of proximity to strips so that if they needed to get down in an emergency, they could in a relatively easy, quick fashion. But I don’t – there hasn’t been a – there’s not a mile radius put on this.
John T. Bennett at US News believes the restrictions are mostly lip service with little longterm effect on the Raptor’s use. He explains why the news “rings hollow”:
Despite some chatter in defence circles that the F-22 fleet might be permanently doomed, several longtime military hardware analysts say the Raptor restrictions will likely be lifted soon and the issue will quickly be forgotten.
Bennett spoke to Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute analyst and industry consultant, who said: “The easiest fix is to automate the oxygen system. Once that’s done, the problem should go away.”
Referring to the F-22 pilots who appeared on 60 Minutes recently to discuss their concerns about flying the troubled jet, a reporter at the press call when the mandate was announced spoke up:
“Two pilots who flew the F-22 that were interviewed on 60 Minutes addressed [an] issue about how the Air Force needs… tests from flights in the air to figure out what the problem is. They described themselves as guinea pigs. How do you ensure that, you know, airmen who are flying the Raptor aren’t being used as guinea pigs in this case?”
Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby skirted the question.
“I don’t think we would ever refer to a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force as a guinea pig,” he said.
Though he added that any airman’s “service and expertise is critical to helping us figure out what the problem is here.”
He may have been referring to the F-22 mechanics who have also been getting sick from being around the jet. Larry Shaughnessy at CNN Security Clearance reports that the Air Force is looking into 11 reports of “hypoxia-like symptoms” since September in its crews of Maintainers. These are the airmen who sometimes occupy the cockpit when the Raptor’s doing a “ground run“.
The truth is, the Air Force should have been the first to intervene in the F-22 issue and act — not wait for the defence Secretary to slap a mandate on its fleet.
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