Air Force Tests New System to Monitor for Hypoxia Problems

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force is testing a breathing and cockpit environment monitoring system developed by Cobham to provide data to address the continuing problem of pilots developing hypoxia-like symptoms.

The military "doesn't know what's at the root of the problem, and Cobham doesn't either. Nobody does," said Rob Schaeffer, business management developer for Cobham Mission Systems Division. But he said the Cobham system could help pinpoint the solution.

At the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Monday, Schaeffer said the company had delivered eight of its inhalation monitors in June to the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM) for testing.

Another eight units of the exhalation monitors will be delivered to USAFSAM later this month. Schaeffer said the Navy has also shown interest in testing the systems.

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The latest from the U.K. defense company comes amid news that the Air Force plans to modify flight equipment for the F-35 such as the pilot vest and breathing mask, according to a report from Aviation Week.

The Air Force has reduced the flight vest weight by 10 pounds to relieve chest pressure, and has moved to replace faulty exhalation valves found in the masks after testing, officials told AvWeek at the conference.

Cobham's system has inhalation and exhalation monitors that fit in a flight vest pocket. The inhalation monitor is designed to measure oxygen pressure, temperature, pressure within the breathing hose, humidity and other factors. The exhalation monitor checks oxygen pressure, expired carbon dioxide, and pressure within the mask, among other variables.

In June, the Air Force grounded some of its F-35A Joint Strike Fighters following incidents in which pilots reported hypoxia-like symptoms while flying.

The groundings renewed attention on hypoxia, a physical condition caused by oxygen deficiency that may result in temporary cognitive and physiological impairment and possible loss of consciousness.

In recent years, hypoxia has also affected pilots of F-22 Raptor, F/A-18 Hornet and T-45 Goshawk aircraft.

The problem gained national attention in 2010 after an F-22 crashed and the pilot was killed following a suspected loss of oxygen.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.

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