General Tapped to Lead Investigation into Hypoxia Incidents

FILE PHOTO – Then Col. Bobbi Doorenbos (now Brig. Gen. Bobbi Doorenbos), at a retirement ceremony at Ebbing Air National Guard Base, Fort Smith, Ark., Aug. 7, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Airman Cody Martin)
FILE PHOTO – Then Col. Bobbi Doorenbos (now Brig. Gen. Bobbi Doorenbos), at a retirement ceremony at Ebbing Air National Guard Base, Fort Smith, Ark., Aug. 7, 2016. (U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Airman Cody Martin)

The Air Force has created a new investigative team to research and record ongoing hypoxia episodes in its aircraft in hopes of minimizing future incidents, the service announced Monday.

Brig. Gen. Bobbi Jo Doorenbos, currently special assistant to the director of the Air National Guard, will head the "Unexplained Physiologic Events Integration Team," the Air Force said in a release.

Doorenbos was previously the first female commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard's 188th Wing at Ebbing Air National Guard Base-Fort Smith and has more than 1,200 hours in the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

"As part of the integrated effort to address physiological events, the Air Force is providing more resources to understand UPEs, standardize response actions to such events and assess options for more robust aircrew training to recognize and respond to these events," she said.

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"Our ultimate goal is to prevent UPEs," Doorenbos said in the release.

The team will strive to implement new recommendations to avoid hypoxia-like symptoms -- shortness of breath, confusion, wheezing -- in flight, and will share its findings across the Air Force and joint partners.

While physiological events aren't common, the service said it has seen an increase in pilots reporting the hazardous events.

"The probability that a pilot will experience a physiological event is less than 1 percent per year," Doorenbos said. "Still, we are aggressively addressing these events and communicating with aircrew so they remain confident in their aircraft and weapon systems."

Most recently, more than two dozen A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, didn't fly in late November after two pilots reported they experienced symptoms.

The pilots' reports varied: One of the aircraft was equipped with the Onboard Oxygen Generation System, commonly known as OBOGS, while the other was equipped with the Liquid Oxygen System, or LOX.

The Air Force "quickly determined the issue with the LOX-equipped aircraft was related to a malfunction with the cabin pressure and oxygen regulator. Those issues were fixed immediately," Capt. Joshua Benedetti, spokesman for the 355th Fighter Wing, told Military.com on Jan. 11.

But to properly inspect the OBOGS-equipped aircraft -- 28 of the total 85 A-10s on base -- the service grounded those jets for about a week, Benedetti said.

Despite those efforts, the Air Force is still seeking answers to why the incidents occurred.

"At this point, we have not determined a root cause," Benedetti said.

In June, the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, halted operations for all F-35As there after pilots complained of hypoxia-related issues. In succeeding days, the Air Force established initiatives to keep pilots safe and to avoid experiencing symptoms in flight.

Those initiatives include a backup oxygen system, wearable technology to monitor pilots' oxygen levels, and a restriction on how high pilots could take the craft.

The F-35s at Luke resumed flight that same month. Currently, a total of 61 F-35As are assigned to Luke.

A root cause for those incidents has not been found.

Pilots flying the F-22 Raptor fifth-generation stealth jet experienced hypoxia symptoms on various occasions between 2008 and 2012. One pilot died as a result, and one had a near-death scare, with dozens more experiencing confusion and disorientation while flying, according to an ABC News investigation at the time.

Then-Pentagon spokesman George Little said investigators found the cause to be a faulty valve in the high-pressure vest worn by pilots at extreme altitude, which was restricting their ability to breathe.

Lt. Gen. Chris Nowland, the service's deputy chief of staff for operations, said Air Force pilots have been trained to identify and properly respond to an episode to safely recover the aircraft.

"Maximizing the performance of combat aircraft carries inherent risk, but it is our solemn duty as a service to provide the best equipment and training for our airmen to ensure their safety is never compromised," he said in the release.

"The Air Force takes UPEs very seriously. Results from investigations into these events are shared between Air Force organizations, other military services and industry partners," Nowland said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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