The F-22 Blues
The stealthiest, priciest, sexiest fighter jet ever built is choking - and maybe poisoning - its pilots.
We’ve known for years that the F-22 Raptor—the stealthiest, priciest, sexiest air superiority fighter ever built—is also an unbearable prima donna. As the Washington Post reported in 2009, the F-22 flies an average of 1.7 hours between each “critical failure,” refuses to talk to the datalinks of lesser American jets, and doesn’t work when it’s raining. Now it might be poisoning its pilots.
Breaking military protocol (and seriously jeopardizing their jobs), F-22 pilots Captain Josh Wilson and Major Jeremy Gordon recently appeared on 60 Minutes sounding like battered spouses. It is “absolutely unmatched,” says one, and a “phenomenal, phenomenal machine,” concurs the other—but a machine with the unfortunate tendency to cut off (or contaminate) pilots’ oxygen, leaving them disoriented mid-flight and in a daze for days after.
The suspected diagnosis is hypoxia and the symptoms alarming: A pilot hit a tree, then landed, without realizing what happened. Wilson got so confused in the air, he couldn’t find the emergency oxygen ring. When the Air Force tried to solve the problem with Brita-like filters on their oxygen masks, F-22 pilots developed the “Raptor cough.” The birds were grounded, then reinstated without anyone figuring out the problem. (By reinstated, we mean back in the air defending Virginia from a Maryland invasion. Officially online since 2005, no F-22 has flown over Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or any other combat zone.)
Two things stand out from the _60 Minutes_ report: First, an F-22—which, like all the latest fighters, is “inherently unstable” aerodynamically, meaning fly-by-wire software correction is required just to keep it going straight and level—can apparently stay in the air and even land itself with its pilot more or less checked out. Second, the oxygen delivered to those fragile pilots comes from atmospheric air drawn through the jet engine into a module that chemically creates concentrated O2.
Bob Gates and Pres. Obama definitively shut the book on the F-22 program in 2009, leaving the cost of the 187 planes purchased (600+ were planned) at an unspeakable $350 million per copy. No one cried for Lockheed Martin, though; the end of the F-22 was also a doubling-down on its other overbudget, underwhelming stealth jet, the F-35 Lightning II—originally meant as a lighter, cheaper, single-engine volume companion to the top-dog F-22 that the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and U.S. allies could all buy in bulk. Now almost certainly topping $200 million per copy itself, the F-35 has been beset by its own high-profile, intractable bugs.
Most famously, the helmet: touted as a revolutionary augmented-reality navigation and targeting system—imagine Google Glasses that let you see through walls, or your own body—the laggy video and frequent crashes of the HMDS (helmet-mounted display system) so held up development that the F-35 team was forced last year to contract a “plan-B”, a de-contented version of BAE’s helmet for the Eurofighter Typhoon. (But the original helmet maybe kinda works, now.)
Notice a pattern? The weak link in the next gen of manned military aircraft is invariably the man (or nowadays, woman). Pilots need oxygen. They need information fed to eyes that never stay in one place, in heads that come in a maddening array of shapes and sizes. People get upset when they die.
As Defense Tech notes, whatever the proximate causes and fixes, it’s “the Raptor’s crazy performance” that seems the ultimate basis of its oxygen woes, “hint[ing] that the jet is pushing the limits of aerospace science.” The Raptor is famously tarred as a weapon designed for an enemy—21st-century Soviet MiGs—that doesn’t exist. Was it also built to be operated by a species not exactly human?
In “Deep Throat,” episode 2 of Season 1 of the X-Files, Mulder and Scully investigate hot-shot fighter jocks broken—physically, psychologically, and bureaucratically—by their experimental aircraft. (It was 1993—They could well have been early YF-22s.) Henceforth, this became the takeaway of perhaps every fourth x-file: The military was playing with alien technology, stuff homo sapiens just isn’t capable of handling.
“War of the Coprophages” (3×12), the series’s single best episode, offered a more persuasive reading, however: Tales of crashed flying saucers with Greys to autopsy couldn’t possibly be true. Any truly advanced alien civilization would do their exploration, and colonization, and “air superiority” under basic precepts of technological efficiency. They’d send drones.