Attrition: The Raptor Curse Gets Worse

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June 10, 2012: Desperate to find out what is causing disorientation and illness among its' F-22 (Raptor) fighter pilots, the U.S. Air Force has spent $20 million on automatic backup oxygen systems for 40 of its F-22s. This is a safety measure for heavily used F-22s, and an attempt to capture data from one of the rare "events" that the pilots have had with their breathing.

Meanwhile, the air force is also taking a closer look at the special vests pilots wear to help them with their breathing in the low pressure of the F-22 cockpit. The hypothesis is that the vest automatically inflates too much during high-g (gravitational force) maneuvers, making it difficult for pilots to breathe. This would be subtle, so that the pilot would not immediately notice a problem with breathing. Anything obvious would have been noticed when the vest was tested. Pilots have complained about a "strange feeling" when breathing with the vest during high-g turns but not in such a way that they connected it with the disorientation.

The pressure vest problems may be linked to recently reported instances of excessive coughing by F-22 pilots. It's being called "Raptor Cough" and is actually a known condition (acceleration atelectasis) for pilots who have just completed a high speed maneuver. But it appears to be showing up more frequently among F-22 pilots. The F-22 pilots are perplexed and a bit nervous about their expensive and highly capable jets and are reporting things they earlier thought little of.

As a precaution, pilots must now make flights at least 24 hours apart. In training, and combat, pilots would take their F-22s up two or more times a day. The theory is that the pressure vests and acceleration atelectasis will not be a problem if pilots have at least 24 hours to recover.

The air force still believes that something, as yet unknown, is getting into the pilots air supply and causing problems. Despite this, the air force continues to fly its F-22s. The decision to keep flying was made because the air supply problems have not killed anyone yet and they are rare (once every 10,000 sorties).

The 14 incidents so far were all cases of F-22 pilots apparently experiencing problems. The term "apparently" is appropriate because the pilots did not black out and a thorough check of the air supply system and the aircraft found nothing wrong. There have been nearly 30 of these "dizziness or disorientation" incidents in the last four years, with only 14 of them serious enough to be called real incidents. Only one F-22 has been lost to an accident so far, and while that did involve an air supply issue, it was caused by pilot error, not equipment failure.

Meanwhile the air force has spent $7 million to install commercial oxygen status sensors in the air supply systems of its F-22 fighters. This is part of a year-long effort to find out what's causing the air supply on F-22s to get contaminated and cause pilots to become disoriented or pass out. Twice in the past year the entire F-22 fleet was grounded because of the air supply problems. The first grounding lasted 140 days and ended last September. The second grounding lasted a week and ended last December.

The F-22s comprise the most powerful component of the air force's air combat capability and the brass are eager to find out what is wrong. The air force recently received the last of 187 F-22s that will be built. Production was limited because these aircraft were too expensive. It's very embarrassing that their safety should be threatened by something so basic as the pilot air supply.

The air force has already found some problems with the air supply system (too much nitrogen and other contaminants). The main problem was always about something bad in the air supply. But the air does not go bad in any predictable fashion, nor does it become bad enough to cause problems for the pilot. So the air force is still looking for causes. Thus F-22 pilots, for example, give blood samples after most flights and maintainers pay extra attention to the oxygen system. And now there will be all the data from the new oxygen sensors.

The air force woes began when it appeared that the F-22 might be having a problem with its OBOG (OnBoard Oxygen Generating) system. OBOGs have been around for over half a century. It's only in the last two decades that OBOGs have become compact, cheap, and reliable enough to replace the older compressed gases or LOX (liquid oxygen) as a source of breathable air for high flying aircrew. Each aircraft, especially the F-22 and F-35, gets an OBOG tweaked for space, weight, or other conditions specific to that warplane design. It's this custom design that was also closely studied, to find out how the toxins got in.

One problem is that aircraft have been staying in the air longer (because of in-flight refueling) and carrying enough compressed oxygen has become untenable, requiring OBOGs to solve the problem. Since the 1990s, most American military aircraft have replaced older oxygen systems with OBOGs. Most Western nations, and Russia, have followed, at least with their latest model aircraft. Most OBOG systems work by using a chemical reaction to remove carbon dioxide from the air taken in to the OBOG and then sending out air with the proper amount of oxygen to the aircrew.

 


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