Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz says he expects a report soon that will lay out the next steps for getting the F-22 Raptors back into regular service, Air Force Magazine reported Wednesday in its must-read Daily Report. Schwartz told air scribe John Tirpak that the report owed him by an Air Force Scientific Advisory Board task force will lay out a course of action for Air Combat Command and the rest of the service to resolve the problems with the fighters' onboard oxygen generation systems. Defense News has reported the oxygen systems were causing pilots to breathe contaminated gasses and may have been slowly poisoning them.
But if that's so -- and Schwartz evidently didn't say -- he did rule out a connection between the Raptors' current woes and the F-22 crash last year up in Alaska. So what did happen? We may know more soon about that too, Tirpak wrote: "A more thorough investigation of the crash site was possible during the recent summer months and yielded recovered hardware and computer memory that made a more comprehensive analysis possible. Completion of an accident investigation board report, long delayed due to difficulties in assessing the wreckage, is expected soon, Schwartz said."
So -- in true U.S. military fashion, stand by to stand by. Although these updates are the first forward progress after weeks of radio silence on the F-22 situation, they don't necessarily mean it'll be over soon. But Raptor squadrons are losing more of their edge with each day they can't fly as normal, so the Air Force top leadership needs to get them back as close to normal operations as possible, even before determining a permanent fix. It's possible we may see the Raptors restored to flight status with altitude or performance restrictions at first, as were in effect before the full grounding. Then, with pilots and crews able to get back to work and much of the scrutiny gone, the Air Force can set about actually repairing or replacing the fighters' oxygen systems.
Air Force officials would probably say that this isn't that big a deal: The F-22s were always available for highest priority missions (i.e. "Red Dawn II: This Time It's China") and when the birds based at Langley AFB, Va., had to escape Hurricane Irene, they did so without incident. But there's no question it has been a black eye, beginning when Schwartz told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that it was possible the F-22 could make its combat debut over Libya -- and then it didn't. In retrospect, not sending the fighters was a stroke of luck for the Air Force, because if they had been flying real missions when engineers discovered the oxygen system problems, it could have been at least embarrassing, and at worst, deadly.