The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is the pinnacle of airborne technology right now. The plane can fly higher, go faster, use less fuel, and be more invisible than nearly every other plane thats out there. How dominate is the F-22 you ask? In 2009 they had a war game where they pitted F-22 pilots against the best the Navy and Air Force had to offer. F15's, F-18's, and F-16's in what were called aggressor units, and there was one common theme that the opposing aggressor pilots came away with. "Aggressor pilots are not typical Air Force line units. They tend to have much more experience," says Mike Estrada, a spokesman at the air base that the games were held at. "And I can tell you that our Aggressor pilots are getting very tired of always getting shot down by the F-22."
But early this year an F-22 crashed in Alaska and the reason was unknown until recently when Air Force pilots of the based in Virginia started to complain that they were feeling hypoxia symptoms.These pilots went public with the problem and actually refused to go up in the plane anymore. Then there was a reported incident of the ground crews for the F-22 suffering from hypoxia like symptoms as well.
Congress began looking into it and some conclusions were made about the plane but few were based on concrete facts. Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger went in front of some Senators and said that the problem was, “we’re realizing that we operate this aircraft differently than we operate any of our other fighter aircraft, we fly at a higher altitude, we execute maneuvers that are high-G at that high altitude and we’re on that oxygen system at those high altitudes for periods of time.” Translation? The F-22 is too awesome for us to fly and that is why there are problems.
Not a lot of people are buying into this especially since the ground crew started having problems and so people started pointing to something mechanical on the plane. Maybe is was as simple as a washer that comes loose and looses pressure in its corresponding system under extreme heat and stress. Or maybe it is the glue that is one of the key components of the stealth technology that the plane uses to stay invisible.
The glue theory is the one being thrown out there by F-16 co-designer Pierre Sprey. In an interview with the Panama City News Herald, Sprey said that the problem the pilots are suffering is due to "the pilot being exposed to diisocyanates, which are found within the polyurethane glues that comprise the stealth coatings, at a number of times because the adhesives are reapplied in the upkeep of the plane." Mr. Sprey also believes that the Air Force or DoD will not admit the problem because "dealing with the F-22’s glues, which provide the F-22 its stealth, would mean a 'major rebuild of the airplane.'"
Heidi Davis, an Air Force spokeswoman, disregards these claims saying that tests revealed a lack of toxins in the cockpit, air system and pilot’s blood, helping negate Sprey’s claim. But the Panama City News Herald spoke to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry who said that "these types of chemicals react with the body quickly and could potentially be out of the pilots’ system before testing even took place."
Unhappy with the Air Force's handling of the long-simmering problems with the oxygen system on the most expensive fighter plane in history, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered restrictions on F-22 flights and told the Air Force to speed up its efforts to prevent Raptor pilots from experiencing life-threatening hypoxia in flight. That happened in May and to this date there is still no solution for what exactly is the problem is. At over $150 million per airframe, the cost to retrofit the 180 Raptors in service would be extremely expensive, but in my opinion worth it. When this fighter is in the air, there is nothing on this entire planet that can even eat its lunch.
all pictures courtesy of the United States Air Force