Could This Next-Gen Cockpit System End Hypoxia-Like Incidents?


SALON DU BOURGET, France -- The manufacturer of cockpit onboard oxygen generation systems for the Navy's F/A-18 Hornet and T-45 trainer is readying an updated model with improved durability and built-in modularity for the T-45 in the event that the service opts to replace existing systems.

The Navy is grappling with a troubling recent trend of hypoxia-like incidents and other cockpit physiological episodes in the T-45, which is used to train naval aviators in fighting maneuvers.

A report commissioned by Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Moran and made public last week revealed that the incidents are still mystifying officials. While engineers are deconstructing aircraft to look for flaws and flooding cockpit oxygen systems with contaminants in efforts to find a weakness, Moran indicated that Navy officials are also considering the possibility of replacing existing OBOGS with new components if they determine that's where the current problems reside.

The "next-generation" oxygen concentrator system named in the report is GGU-25, first developed 10 to 12 years ago, said Derek Woods, director of pneumatic systems for the U.K.-based company Cobham, which makes the current OBOGS for the aircraft.

"We had worked collaboratively with the Navy to modify the GGU-7, which has been the workhorse concentrator on the T-45," Woods told in an interview here at the Paris Air Show on Monday. "... So they produced an engineered version called the GGU-25 that was really driven to look at some improvements of reliability of components, as well as provide a little bit of expanded communication capability and data gathering ability."

A trio of the systems were delivered to the Navy years ago, Woods said, and pilots logged about 400 flight hours on them, but ultimately production never moved forward.

In the years since, Cobham has invested heavily into research and development to develop its next-generation concentrator.

While Woods declined to specify how much the company has spent on the study of physiological episodes and new oxygen delivery technology for pilots, the subject was presented front-and-center at Cobham's booth at the air show. An interactive display walked visitors through various kinds of physiological episodes, their impact on pilots, and existing data.

The new system is designed to incorporate lessons learned from its 30-year-old predecessor.

"What we try to focus on is not only meeting and exceeding the current standards, but we also incorporated removable sieve beds and improve the reliability of the primary components," Woods said. "We look at the history and look at components that might have had a higher failure rate, and say, 'OK, why is that?' How can we improve those components, thus increasing the reliability of the overall system."

Sieve beds, the filters that keep air delivered to the pilots clean and dry, have been a point of scrutiny in the investigations into physiological episodes.

The system, Woods said, also has inherent ability to communicate, synch with, and connect with other technologies -- a step toward what Cobham calls its integrated life support system concept.

"So we're building in that capability ... [it's] not only improved reliability, maintainability, but also flexibility as new technologies and suites of technologies are identified. We really think that's a huge advantage for the flight crew," he said.

At this point, the decision on how to proceed lies with the Navy, likely to be informed by continued study of the physiological episode problem.

Woods said Cobham wants to proceed with whatever fix will ultimately be best for the pilot.

"We don't necessarily want the Air Force or the Navy to go down a path that doesn't really add value," he said. "You might be fixing technologies that really don't need to be fixed because you haven't identified that root cause."

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