Lawmakers Rip Brass for Handling of Hypoxia Incidents

Pilots prepare to taxi on the flightline in a T-6 Texan II on Nov. 1, 2017, at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The Air Force grounded its T-6 fleet last week after hypoxia-related incidents. The T-6 is used to train specialized undergraduate pilot training students, providing the basic skills necessary to progress to more specialized aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Corey Pettis)
Pilots prepare to taxi on the flightline in a T-6 Texan II on Nov. 1, 2017, at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The Air Force grounded its T-6 fleet last week after hypoxia-related incidents. The T-6 is used to train specialized undergraduate pilot training students, providing the basic skills necessary to progress to more specialized aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Corey Pettis)

Lawmakers criticized U.S. Air Force and Navy leaders over the latest hypoxia-related incidents occurring in various aircraft for not honoring their obligation to pilots.

During a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee hearing Tuesday, the elected representatives lambasted military officials for not producing conclusive medical data on hypoxia-like symptoms and for not properly debriefing affected pilots.

While the military services and NASA sharing information on incidents occurring in such aircraft as the F/A-18 Hornet, T-45 Goshawk, T-6 Texan, A-10 Thunderbolt and F-35 Lightning, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, argued looking to the aircraft first is a mistake.

Citing a recent NASA report commissioned by the Navy to investigate incidents in F/A-18s, Turner, the panel's chairman, said these physiological episodes -- disorientation, shortness of breath, confusion, wheezing -- "do not happen to planes, they happen to people."

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NASA in December released a report stating the Navy in its search to identify a root cause for the hypoxia occurrences focused too much on aircraft fixes instead of its pilots and crew.

Lt. Gen. Chris Nowland, the service's deputy chief of staff for operations, testified on behalf of Brig. Gen. Bobbi Jo Doorenbos, who was recently appointed to lead an "Unexplained Physiologic Events Integration Team." Doorenbos was not available to attend the hearing, Nowland said.

"The key is trust," Nowland said. "If the aircrew doesn't trust their system and the families don't trust the Air Force, we lose. That's why training is critical to this whole as we move forward."

For example, by dissecting the Onboard Oxygen Generation System, commonly known as OBOGS, recently in A-10s and T-6s, Nowland said hypoxia incidents in those platforms may be linked to a maintenance issue. He didn't specify the problem.

The service last week ordered an indefinite operational pause for all T-6 Texan II aircraft. There have been 22 hypoxia-related incidents in the T-6A in fiscal 2018 alone, according to Nowland's written testimony.

"It's why we need to get into training, and we totally agree with the Navy -- I mean, NASA -- we need [to] instrument our pilots. We're looking into that as we move forward," Nowland said.

The general testified alongside Rear Adm. Lower Half Sara Joyner, Navy physiological events action team lead, and Clinton Cragg, the principal engineer for NASA's Engineering and Safety Center.

Turner said he could not be more disappointed in Nowland's remarks, once again turning the conversation back to the system.

"The report and the presentation is that the human factor is not being taken into consideration, and your answer is training," the lawmaker said. "You didn't ground your T-6 aircraft just last week because of training. This is a significant issue, it's not just 'listen and talk' [to find an answer]. This is pure safety."

Turner said military officials who have testified on hypoxia before have said the difficulty they're having is to replicate what pilots are experiencing in order to understand the fallout in the system.

"No one ever came to us and tried to blame the pilots, and say it is just an issue of training," he said.

"If you continue to come before us and say this is just an issue of training and pilots, general, should we start doing hearing training where we ask you to come before us and [say], 'Let's have you hold your breath for a minute in the first hearing and, in the second, we'll have you hold your breath for two minutes?' It makes no sense," Turner said.

Both services, to some degree, have put into place instrumental and medical procedures to try to better pinpoint the cause of the problems.

For instance, the Navy fielded the CRU-123 solid-state oxygen monitor on the T-45 to alert aircrew if delivery pressure falls while recording system performance and faults, Joyner said.

"A total of 163 new oxygen monitors have been installed as of Jan. 24," she said in her written testimony.

Joyner said for both the T-45 and the F/A-18, future investigations "will start with the human and end with the human."

The Navy on the F/A-18 intends to initiate a new request for proposal for a new OBOGs concentrator, as well as incorporating a software change to the Environmental Control System -- which works in the process to provide breathable air to the pilot -- in the near future, Joyner said.

But "the medical force outcomes will take some time. We're pursuing those answers long term. I want to make sure we aren't missing a single thing," she said.

Turner said he intends to seek another hearing once more conclusive evidence becomes available.

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

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