So what if two Air Force F-22 pilots went on "60 Minutes" Sunday to warn the jet might be unsafe and admit they've asked not to fly it? The Air Force is so confident in the F-22 it volunteered its defense a day early.
The service had an official story posted Saturday headlined "ACC confident in F-22," -- for Air Combat Command -- and it quoted ACC boss Gen. Mike Hostage affirming he was so confident in the Raptor, he's going to start flying it himself.
Hostage said he understands there are still concerns about the aircraft; however, he explained that there's always a certain amount of risk involved, and the risk must be balanced with the requirement for the capability.But Hostage's "daring young men in their flying machines" rhetoric contrasts badly with the accounts of the two Virginia Air National Guard pilots who talked with "60 Minutes" on Sunday. Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson told correspondent Lesley Stahl that the Air Force is effectively using its Raptor pilot corps as test dummies, "collecting data" on problems with the jets' onboard oxygen systems because the various standdowns and investigations didn't work. Stahl quoted an email from a third F-22 pilot that said the Raptor drivers had become "the most expensive group of lab monkeys ever assembled."
"In a peacetime training circumstance, we want to operate at as low of risk is prudent for the level of training we get out of a mission," he said. "When we go into combat, risk goes up, but the reason to assume that risk goes up as well. We live in a community where risk is part of our lives," he said. "If we think the risk has gone to a level where we just can't accept it, we either reduce that risk or eliminate it. But right now, we believe that risk -although it's not as low as we would like it - is low enough to safely operate the airplane at the current tempo."
Hostage said he believes this risk is not a risk he expects his airmen to take alone. In an effort to learn more about the aircraft and get a better understanding of what F-22 pilots are dealing with, ACC's commander will soon begin flying the Raptor.
"I'm asking these guys to assume some risk that's over and above what everybody else is assuming, and I don't feel like it's right that I ask them to do it and then I'm not willing to do it myself -- that's not fair," he said, adding that the day they figure out what the problem is the day he will stop flying. Since the aircraft resumed flying operations in September, the F-22 has flown more than 12,000 sorties and returned to operational capability.
And as Stahl reported, the Air Force's attempts to resolve the oxygen problems were, in some cases, making them worse: When engineers fitted charcoal filters they hoped would protect crews from bad air, it actually caused pilots to inhale the charcoal itself and cough up black stuff after their missions. Even before that attempt, Gordon said there always was a "Raptor cough:" "In a room full of F-22 pilots, the vast majority will be coughing a lot of the times. Other things-- laying down for bed at night after flying and getting just the spinning room feeling, dizziness, tumbling, vertigo kind of stuff," he said.
Gordon, Wilson and "60 Minutes" characterized the Raptor problem in the starkest possible terms: Unless the Air Force no-kidding fixes this airplane, there could be blood on its hands, they warned. Pilots could lose their situational awareness flying over a populated area and not only put themselves and their fighter in danger, but everyone below. And although Stahl and "60 Minutes" didn't mention this, DoDBuzz readers know the F-22 line is closed, so any Raptor losses would diminish the full fleet without any chance of replacement.
Now this hot potato could pass into the hands of Congress, where lawmakers have nodded eagerly and accepted the reassurances of Air Force officials who have promised they're getting to the bottom of this. The Senate Armed Services Committee's air-land panel is scheduled to meet Tuesday, and if the F-22 issue comes up, it'll be interesting to watch whether the Air Force continues digging in, or begins to moderate its messaging.