A Department of Defense Inspector General report investigating allegations that the Air Force illegally retaliated against one of the pilots concerned about F-22 hypoxia issues reveals how difficult it is to protect military whistleblowers.
In late 2011, Captain Joshua Wilson and Major Jeremy Gordon, F-22 pilots in the Virginia Air National Guard, joined other pilots in their unit raising concerns about experiencing hypoxia-like systems due to oxygen problems with the F-22. When their commanders told them to fly anyway, they raised their concerns to Congress, eventually appearing on 60 Minutes. In Wilson’s case, he described being so disoriented by the lack of oxygen that he couldn’t remember where the emergency ring to activate his onboard oxygen generator system (OBOGS) was. A filter was added to try to address these problems but, they said, it only made the problems worse.
Wilson was relatively lucky since he was able to fly safely home. Another pilot, Captain Jeff Haney, died trying to find the emergency oxygen ring. The Air Force blamed his death on pilot error rather than admit any design flaws, though the Air Force did later redesign the ring.
After Wilson and Gordon came forward, the Air Force issued a directive that the two pilots should not be retaliated against, and Air Force General Janet Wolfenbarger assured the Senate Armed Services Committee there would be no retaliation. Gordon did not face any immediate formal disciplinary action. But Captain Wilson’s career stalled after he made his protected disclosures. He was removed from a promotion vacancy list, had his flight status put under review, and received a letter of reprimand. After those actions he asked the Defense Department Inspector General to investigate what he believed to be illegal retaliation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the August 2014 report by the Inspector General, which POGO obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), found there wasn’t any retaliation. According to the report, Wilson’s Air National Guard commander punished him not because Wilson made disclosures but because he refused to fly a plane he had reasonable belief was unsafe. Refusing to fly, his commander told the Inspector General, undermined good order and discipline and “had the potential to cast” their wing “in an unfavorable light” to the active duty unit with whom they would shortly be conducting a joint exercise. Wilson’s commander punished him “despite his own personal misgivings about the safety of the F-22” and the filter.
While good order and discipline are essential in the military, they must be balanced against significant safety concerns. The report acknowledges that Wilson had a reasonable belief of substantial and specific dangers to public safety since another crash “would likely result in the loss of both pilot and the aircraft,” which “could be over a densely populated area in a very short time.” This report sends a deafening and discouraging signal that commanders prioritize their reputation over pilot safety.
The report, which took nearly three years to complete, was also an example of how often reprisal investigations take much longer to complete than the 180 days required under the law. In 2016 the Government Accountability Office found cases closed in fiscal years 2013 and 2014 averaged 526 days. In July 2014, both Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) and Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) raised concerns with the Inspector General about how long it was taking to resolve Wilson’s case. “We've gone through three defense secretaries. It shouldn't take this long,” Senator Warner told the Daily Press at the time.
Ongoing Problems Exposed by F-22 Whistleblowers Continue to Undermine Mission Effectiveness
Pilots continue to report problems with hypoxia and other physiological issues on a number of platforms, and there are still concerns about whether military leaders are taking the problem seriously enough. For example, the F-35 program has reported 29 physiological episodes, and grounded its fleet at Luke Air Force base last June after pilots reported experiencing hypoxia-like symptoms. Additionally, last summer T-45 Navy training aircraft were grounded after a number of instructor pilots at three locations refused to fly due to hypoxia concerns, just as happened with the F-22.
During a hearing last month Representative Mike Turner (R-OH), chair of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Subcommittee, raked senior military officials over the coals for their handling of physiological issues experienced by pilots flying fighter, attack, and training aircraft. He criticized Navy and Air Force leaders for being too slow to respond to concerns raised by pilots.
In the spring and summer, the Navy grounded the T-45 after pilots refused to fly due to hypoxia concerns. “It's an incident that we were very concerned about in this committee that would have to go to the level of the pilots themselves intervening and refusing to fly, prior to leadership understanding the need to intervene,” Turner said.
A comprehensive review of the problems with physiological episodes involving T-45s and FA-18s, mandated by the Subcommittee in last year’s defense authorization bill, found that for pilots, leadership’s lack of understanding of the risks posed to pilots “ultimately led to a breakdown of trust and confidence that effective protective measures were in place to address safety and hazard concerns.” Failing to adequately address these problems “is having a direct effect on overall readiness and affecting the confidence of our pilots as well as their ability to perform their missions,” Turner said. “Because it is not just these events occurring, it is also the anxiety of these events occurring in succession.”
And rather than responding to the problems raised by T-45 pilots, Turner said, “the leadership of the Navy continued to treat this as if it was not a physiological episode” and blamed the problem on training. “[I]f you continue to come before us and say this is just an issue of training the pilots, I mean, you know, General, should we start doing hearing training where we ask you to come before us and then let's have you hold your breath for a minute during the first hearing, and then in the second hearing we’ll have you hold your breath for two minutes? It makes no sense.”
Perhaps the biggest problem revealed by the comprehensive review report, Subcommittee Ranking Member Niki Tsongas (D-MA) pointed out, was the Navy was forgetting to put people first. Rather than engaging the medical community to understand and address the problems, they treated the problems as aircraft and engineering problems, seemingly losing sight of the pilots’ lives at stake. The Navy also never used an Air Force laboratory available to test output issues with the oxygen systems, though there are now planes to conduct this testing.
It’s become clear now that the problems raised by Captain Wilson and Major Gordon were even more systemic than initially understood. Without real whistleblower protections many will be afraid to come forward. If military leaders refuse to listen to the problems raised by whistleblowers they will continue to unnecessarily put pilots’ lives at risk.