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Is the F-22 Too Difficult to Use? Big Questions Surround Raptor's Grounding

Many pixels have been spilled on the recent grounding of the F-22 Raptor fleet, problems with the plane's oxygen systems, and the possible role of the oxygen system in the November 2010 crash of an F-22 in Alaska and death of its pilot. Here's a quick roundup of coverage of the latest problems facing this very expensive plane, followed by some questions that I think need to be answered.

What we know so far:

  • “The On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) has been under investigation since an F-22 crashed in November just outside Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Until the stand-down, Raptor sorties had been restricted to an altitude of 25,000 feet or below for training missions because of the potential malfunctions.” [Air Force Times, May 10, 2011]
  • “That [November] accident, in which the pilot was killed, is under investigation and has not been linked to the oxygen system concerns.” [Flightglobal, June 16, 2011]
  • “The grounding order was spurred by a five instances since late April of F-22 ‘physiological-hypoxia-like’ events that may be indications of potential malfunctions, the Air Force said. … One incident involved a pilot assigned to the 302nd Fighter Squadron in Alaska who ‘scraped the underside of the aircraft on trees during a landing approach,’ an e-mail to congressional defense committees said. ‘The pilot does not recall the incident and is being treated for physiological symptoms.’”[Bloomberg, May 10, 2011]
  • “Prior to the five recent F-22 events, nine incidents were reported between June 2008 and February, the Air Force said. …Those nine incidents trigged a safety board investigation of the Honeywell system.” [Bloomberg, May 10, 2011]
  • “Although internally described as the ‘OBOGS safety investigation’, the probe launched after the 3 May safety stand-down of the F-22A fleet is ‘not limited’ to that particular system, Air Combat Command (ACC) said in emailed responses to questions.” [Flightglobal, June 16, 2011]
  • “The Air Force’s fleet of F-22 super-jets has been grounded for more than two months now, but service officials had no details Friday about when the F-22s may fly again or even when engineers could finish the investigation into the fighters’ onboard oxygen systems.” [DoDBuzz, July 11, 2011]
  • “The USAF investigation is also comparing the F-22's life support system with other strike aircraft in its fleet, including the Lockheed F-35A Lightning II, Fairchild Republic A-10, Boeing F-15, Lockheed F-16 and Hawker Beechcraft T-6A, the ACC said.” [Flightglobal, June 16, 2011]

I have two sets of questions:

  1. What did the Air Force know before the recent groundings? As Bloomberg noted, there were nine instances from June 2008 and February of this year that triggered an earlier safety investigation into the Honeywell oxygen system. Then five more since February leading to the latest investigation and groundings. Plus, there is the possibility that the November 2010 crash and death were related to the oxygen system, although we do not know if the accident investigation is pointing that way or not yet. Were there inklings of oxygen system problems before June 2008? What did the earlier oxygen safety investigation find? Why are problems in this critical life support system only now coming to light?
  2. Given the extraordinary cost of this aircraft and the myriad problems in maintaining it (you can’t use a plane if it’s grounded), is the F-22 too expensive and too difficult to use? The oxygen system issue is just the latest fiasco in this program.