The crash of an F-22 Raptor near Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle on November 15 is prompting discussion about cost and safety issues surrounding America’s most controversial superfighter.
The pilot ejected safely at Tyndall, 12 miles east of Panama City. Col. David E. Graff, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing, said the pilot had a problem about five miles south of the base and crashed in a wooded area a quarter mile east of the runway. The pilot was briefly hospitalized, found not to have injuries or physiological symptoms, and released. Officials briefly closed a portion of nearby Highway 98 as a precaution and technicians in oversized white hazardous materials suits combed the crash site.
Officials belatedly acknowledged an earlier May 31 mishap in which an F-22 was severely damaged in a belly landing. In that incident, a pilot making only his second Raptor flight failed to advance the throttle to “military power” during takeoff and prematurely retracted his landing gear. The Air Force hasn’t said whether the Raptor in the earlier incident can be repaired.
The F-22 has plenty of defenders. “This is the best air-to-air fighter in the world,” said British author and analyst Jon Lake in an interview. “Out here in the rest of the world, we look at you Americans and we ask, ‘How could you halt production of a fighter that can kill anything in the sky?’” Lake said the Air Force “hasn’t done a good job of telling the F-22 story.”
Neither of the new F-22 losses appeared to be related to the ongoing controversy about the on-board oxygen system, or OBOGS, which critics say has been poisoning F-22 pilots.
Still, the Raptor crashes drew responses from critics. “There is a feeling in the community that the Air Force still hasn’t worked out the OBOGS issue,” said a recently retired F-22 pilot and squadron commander. “We know this jet can do the job. We know that any airplane will crash once in a while. But there is a feeling that we need to know more here.”
On the Military Times Forums, an Internet chat room for service members, an airman named Bruwin compared the F-22 to “some dude parking his Lamborghini in front of his trailer because he can’t afford to drive or maintain it — plus the Lamborghini’s exhaust [are] fumes leaking into the driving compartment makes driving it suck anyways.”
In 2008, F-22 pilots began reporting hypoxia or oxygen-derivation problems, forcing the Air Force to acknowledge concerns about the fighter’s oxygen supply system. Critics claim these problems contributed to the fatal crash in Alaska on November 16, 2010 of F-22 serial number 04-4125 in which pilot Capt. Jeff “Bong” Haney was killed. An Air Force accident board found pilot error to be the cause of the crash, but last March then-chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz contradicted this finding when he said the Air Force “doesn’t blame” Haney for the crash. In August, contractors who built the F-22 settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought against them by Anna Haney, the pilot’s wife. Terms were not disclosed.
Because of the OBOGS concern, the Air Force grounded all of its 184 F-22s for five months last year to investigate and then placed safety restrictions on the planes when they put them back in the air. Earlier this year, Air Force officials said they fixed the problem.
There was no “smoking gun” behind the hypoxia incidents, said Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon in a Pentagon press briefing last August 1. The event was intended to show that the Air Force believes it has solved the problem.
“We have assembled pieces of the mosaic,” said Lyon. “They reside in the cockpit. …I have high confidence that we have eliminated the major contributors to this problem.” Lyon said investigators ruled out toxins in the air supply. Then, they ruled out the oxygen-generating system altogether. Investigators traced the problem to the pilot’s gear, including a valve that caused a pressure vest to inflate at the wrong time, which constricted breathing.
Critics said Lyon’s appearance was a staged event that failed to end F-22 controversy.
Tyndall is in the process of converting from a formal training unit to a combat wing. On October 1, the 325th wing transferred from Air Education and Training Command (AETC) to Air Combat Command (ACC), where it becomes part of the Ninth Air Force. Graff took command on November 14, the day before the crash. The wing was scheduled to receive its second F-22 squadron, the 7th Fighter Squadron in a transfer from Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., during the current fiscal year. The transfer is one of several shifts of aircraft – called “iron flow” in the Air Force – which have been delayed because Congress hasn’t yet enacted a fiscal year 2013 budget. The Continuing Resolution under which the Department of Defense is currently operating forbids the Air Force from retiring, divesting, realigning or transferring aircraft. Ironically, the change at Tyndall was planned as a gesture to lawmakers who were concerned that the base – which gave up at F-15C/D Eagle unit recently and was left with just one flying squadron – would be vulnerable in future drawdowns.