Scientists and engineers generally agree the human pilot is the largest limiting factor in the progression of aircraft development. It appears the problems facing F-22 pilots are making that case even stronger.
F-22 pilots have been diagnosed for the past two years with hypoxia-like symptoms to include nausea, shortness of breath and feeling light headed while flying the F-22. The Air Force has repeatedly grounded the fleet, or portions of it. One pilot crashed in Alaska in 2010 after reporting hypoxia-like symptoms.
Air Force leaders had declared that they have identified the culprits causing the problems for pilots to include the breathing regulator/anti-g (BRAG) valve on the Combat Edge upper pressure garment. The Air Force is replacing the valve, installing a new back-up oxygen system and changing the oxygen schedule for the F-22’s onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS).
Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, said Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association's annual conference he isn't so sure it's purely a mechanical problem. He pointed his finger in another direction -- the human body.
“It’s not the O-box system. It’s human physiology," Hostage said. “Now there are things within the airplane that exacerbate this element of human physiology, and the changes we are making to the plane are to lessen our susceptibility."
Hostage explained that Air Force investigators have tested pilots by putting them inside the centrifuge and replicated flight conditions in the F-22 in a controlled environment, and the pilots report the same symptoms.
“The bottom line is it wasn’t an element in the airplane, it was human physiology," Hostage said.
It's hard to tell if the adjustments made inside the F-22 cockpit will help pilots, or if the situation Hostage is describing is one that comes when flying a fifth generation fighter jet. Air Force leaders have been repeatedly asked if they should expect these sort of problems to also occur in the F-35.
Their answer is consistent: We don't know yet.
Air Force pilots complained as the rush to build unmanned drones to fly over Iraq and Afghanistan forced many pilots out of their airborne cockpits and into ground control stations permanently planted in dark rooms in states like Nevada and California.
Plenty of manned aviation advocates have trumpeted the benefits of keeping a pilot in the cockpit suggesting unmanned drones leave the Air Force vulnerable to enemies cutting off their digital connection between pilot and aircraft. Those supporting the evolution of aerial drones in the service suggest a human pilot could not have maintained the long loiter times that ground commanders have demanded over potential targets.
The next generation bomber sits as the next major development program for the Air Force. Leaders have already said they want it to have the potential capability of flying manned and unmanned. Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said he wanted to keep a human in the cockpit for potential nuclear missions.
It's a wonder how much that human physiology could limit the engineering boundaries the next generation bomber could achieve.
Hostage made sure to follow up his description of the F-22's affects on the human body with a full throated endorsement of the fifth generation fighter and the capabilities it brings to the Air Force.
“The best thing about it is our adversaries watch it carefully and it scares the hell out of them,” he said.
Hostage didn't say if those same adversaries have noticed how often the Air Force has had to keep the fleet grounded as it studies how the plane is affecting a pilot's health.