A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee has introduced a bill calling for the secretary of the Navy to report to Congress every quarter on the service's efforts to find answers regarding pilot hypoxia-like incidents.
It's a problem, she said, that became much more real and pressing to her after being put through a flight hypoxia simulation during a recent visit to Naval Air Station Norfolk, Virginia.
Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, told reporters at her Capitol Hill office that her visit had included an orientation flight in an F/A-18 Hornet, one of the aircraft platforms most significantly affected by a spike in "physiological episodes" in the cockpit.
Ernst said she participated in a hypoxia simulation in which she was strapped into a reduced-oxygen breathing device, or ROBD, a mask that allows the amount of oxygen flow to be controlled and reduced. The symptoms she experienced, she said, were "textbook."
"My face got hot and flushed, my fingers started tingling, I got numb. My legs started tingling. It was very hard to concentrate," she said. "And they put us through a battery of questions and we had to answer. It was horrible."
The experience, Ernst said, changed her perspective on the gravity of the problem and added to her conviction that the Navy should be required to make regular reports on its efforts to find the cause of the episodes and address it.
"I heard reports in the news initially about the students who were refusing to fly," Ernst said, referring to a group of about 100 Navy instructor pilots of the T-45 Goshawk who declined to conduct training flights after a spike in cockpit episodes in the aircraft.
[At the time], "I was 'like shame on them,' but now I understand it is a very real thing," said Ernst, an Army veteran.
She said she didn't have any additional recommendations about how the Navy should conduct ongoing studies about the causes of the episodes, but said she supported precautionary steps while flight operations continued.
Earlier this fall, the head of the Navy's new Physiological Episode Action Team, Rear Adm. Sara Joyner, briefed the media about steps the service is taking to solve the problem, including the installation of new oxygen monitoring systems aboard the T-45 and improved systems to replace parts likely to fail in aging Hornets.
Ernst's bill to increase reporting on the progress of the Navy's team was submitted as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018, now entering conference to reconcile House and Senate versions. Ernst said she anticipates little controversy and believes the amendment will be preserved in the final version of the NDAA.
"It is very important that the Navy knows we are going to stay on top of this until we find a fix," she said. "Is it the equipment that is failing, what is going on in those jets that that happens. We'll stay on top of this; I'm really excited about the opportunity that we have to find a corrective solution."