Center for Strategic Communication

F-22 Raptors fly in formation with an F-15 Eagle. Photo: U.S. Air Force

Years before the Air Force faced a crisis with the oxygen systems on its premier stealth jet, a group of Air Force officers warned that the expensive F-22 Raptor could choke its pilots. Yet the Air Force, in the name of saving money, let the problem fester.

As far back as 2005, a group of Air Force technical experts calling themselves the RAW-G, for Raptor Aeromedical Working Group, warned that the oxygen system on the F-22 needed an upgrade. The current system has “been known to cause problems with delayed ear blocks and acceleration atelectasis,” which is the technical term for what pilots came to call “Raptor Cough.” They pushed for a digital controller to regulate the flow of oxygen into what’s called OBOGS, for On-Board Oxygen Generation System, and an accompanying software upgrade, according to a blockbuster Associated Press report.

The solution the RAW-G proposed would have cost approximately $100,000 per plane. The F-22 Raptor costs, depending on how you count, between $137 million and $678 million per plane. “The cost was considered prohibitive in light of other items that people wanted funded for the F-22,” the head of the RAW-G, who retired from the Air Force in 2007, told the AP.

Since the F-22 Raptor entered service in 2005, at least 23 pilots have suffered so-called “hypoxia” incidents, meaning that they’ve had serious problems with oxygen in the aircraft. One of those incidents was related to the 2010 death of an Alaska-based pilot, which the Air Force still classifies as a “pilot error.” Hypoxia led the Air Force to briefly ground the entire Raptor fleet twice in 2011, and restrict on how high pilots can fly the F-22 earlier this year. In May, two Raptor pilots went on 60 Minutes to say the “vast, silent majority” of their colleagues felt unsafe flying the plane. The next month, two U.S. legislators revealed that Raptor pilots experience a hypoxia rate at least nine times higher than their colleagues flying other aircraft.

The Pentagon announced in July that the hypoxia problems didn’t stem from the stealth jet’s oxygen systems, but rather from a valve in the pressurized vests Raptor pilots wear at high altitudes, which resulted in a restricted oxygen flow. But that doesn’t mean the F-22 Raptor is totally off probation. Although the Air Force sent a contingent of Raptors to Japan — partially as a demonstration of faith in an aircraft that still hasn’t seen combat — it’s got to fly below 44,000 feet, so pilots won’t have to wear the problematic vests. And the Air Force is continuing to retrofit the Raptors with backup oxygen systems while fixing the vests.

It’s unknown if the RAW-G’s $100,000-per-plane solution would have actually prevented the hypoxia problem, particularly if it truly does stem from a flawed valve on a vest rather than the aircraft itself. But at the least, the RAW-G’s work indicates that there were people within the Air Force — “dozens of experts in life support, avionics, physiology and systems safety, along with F-22 aircrew and maintainers,” in the AP’s characterization — who were deeply worried about the potential for the jet to choke its pilots.

“I am interested in the potential physiologic/health issues related to flying and fixing the F-22s,” wrote Daniel Wyman, a flight surgeon and now a one-star Air Force general who founded the RAW-G, around 2007. By the time the rest of the Air Force shared his concerns, the Raptor fleet had been grounded on multiple occasions; at least one pilot had died; and the Air Force had a major humiliation for its premiere stealth fighter.