The US Air Force’s most sophisticated fighter aircraft have been hobbled by unresolved problems with their oxygen systems, potentially undermining American efforts to balance a rapidly modernizing Chinese air force.
The F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, built by Lockheed Martin, was designed to operate at altitudes over 50,000 feet, giving it a key advantage over rival planes. But high altitude flight requires some kind of system for delivering breathable air to the pilot. In the F-22, that’s accomplished by an on board oxygen-generator.
Beginning in 2008, just three years after the Raptor entered service, F-22 pilots began reporting symptoms of oxygen shortage, or ‘hypoxia,’ including blackouts and disorientation during flight. In November, an F-22 crashed in Alaska, killing its pilot – an incident that there has been speculation might have been tied to hypoxia.
In May, the Air Force grounded all 170 Raptors while it investigated the apparent oxygen problems. The stand-down affected F-22 squadrons in Alaska and Hawaii and also forced the Air Force to suspend its periodic Raptor deployments to Guam and Japan, severely degrading the Pentagon’s aerial arsenal in the Pacific at a time when China was just beginning testing of its own stealth fighter, the J-20.
The F-22s remained available for ‘national security missions’ (in other words, emergencies) according to Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Tad Sholtis. But Sholtis admitted that every day without routine training eroded the Raptor pilots’ flying and fighting skills.
Air Force investigators couldn’t locate the source of the oxygen problems, and in September the flying branch ordered the Raptors back into the air. But the stealth force enjoyed just a few weeks of refresher training before another hypoxia incident resulted in brief flight bans in Alaska and Virginia in late October.
Today, the F-22s are all flying again and the pilots are gradually relearning lost skills. But the oxygen problem remains unresolved, meaning another fleet-wide grounding could occur at any moment, robbing the Pentagon of its newest and most capable warplane – and its best weapon for countering China’s own fast-improving air force.