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An F-22 Raptor from the Hawaii Air National Guard's 199th Fighter Squadron returns to a training mission after refueling March 27 over the Pacific Ocean. (Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth / Air Force)
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the Air Force to limit F-22 flights in regions, such as Alaska, where it would be difficult for pilots to land the plane if they experience signs of oxygen deficiency.
Panetta is stepping in to "add his muscle" to the process of investigating the cause of dizziness, nausea, confusion and other hypoxia-like symptoms afflicting some F-22 pilots and maintainers, Pentagon press secretary George Little said during a news briefing. The directive takes effect immediately, Little said.
"Alaska is one example of a region where it would be difficult in some cases to land the plane due to long distances from runways," Little said in an email to Air Force Times.
It was a fatal F-22 crash in Alaska in November 2010 that brought concerns about the plane's oxygen system to the forefront. Capt. Jeffrey "Bong" Haney crashed his F-22 into a mountainside during a training mission near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
An Air Force accident investigation determined that Haney did not react quickly enough to activate the Raptor's emergency oxygen system or recover from a dive as he struggled to breathe. Air Force officials have said Haney faced a "complex contingency" that he could not overcome. Haney's widow, Anna Haney, filed a lawsuit last month against the contractors of the jet claiming that the "dangerous and defective" plane was at fault for the crash.
The Air Force grounded the F-22 for four months last year. The Raptors returned to flight in September, but Air Force officials still have not identified the cause of the symptoms. Since September, 11 pilots and five maintainers have complained of hypoxia-like symptoms.
The move by Panetta comes just weeks after a group of F-22s were deployed to an undisclosed region in southwest Asia, and after two pilots appeared on "60 Minutes" to say they had refused to fly over safety concerns.
The secretary's guidance will be "operationalized" into instructions that will be passed through the chain of command to operational units "in short order," said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, spokesman for Air Combat Command.
Also on Tuesday, the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee proposed an additional $50 million for a backup oxygen system to be installed on the F-22s and directed the Pentagon to provide timely updates on physiological problems affecting the pilots of the jets.
Last week, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., sent a letter to Air Force leaders demanding an anonymous survey of all F-22 pilots, maintainers and flight surgeons to "definitively document the scope and frequency of these hypoxia-like incidents."