While the two Air Force pilots granted whistleblower status while refusing to fly the F-22 Raptor are safe from harm's way, that can't be said for the 200 other F-22 pilots.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon directed the Air Force to limit the distance of F-22 flights and speed up a fix to the plane's faulty oxygen system, which has been blamed for causing pilots to black out and lose orientation in flight. It was a huge victory for Maj Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Joshua Wilson who took the extraordinary step of appearing on 60 Minutes to discuss the plane's flaws. But the 200 other F-22-certified pilots aren't so lucky.
Last night, Bloomberg reported that the Air Force has no plans to ground the the F-22. “Based on what we know now, I would say no,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said. And critics are now saying Tuesday's Pentagon directive by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta doesn't go far enough to keep F-22 pilots safe. “What Panetta has done is very minor and doesn’t change that the pilots remain at risk,” Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project in the Project on Government Oversight, tells The Christian Science Monitor. The nagging problem is that pilots experience hynoxia, or oxygen deprivation, while flying the lightning-fast jets. And Wheeler says limiting the distances of the flights doesn't eliminate the risk factor, which has been attributed to at least 25 incidents since 2008. One of those incidents was the death of Capt. Jeff Haney, who crashed into a snow field in Alaska on a routine training mission in 2010.
Last night, Haney's sister told ABC News that if the Air Force had developed an emergency back-up oxygen system before allowing pilots to fly, her brother would still be alive. "It would've saved Jeff's life," she said. "My brother would be alive if this would've been something that was in the F-22 from the get-go." The back-up system is what Panetta fast-tracked on Tuesday but is not yet in use. "I can't believe [the Air Force] thought to begin with that that system that they had was sufficient enough," she said. That, to me, was just ignorant."
Thus far, the Air Force has said the F-22's problems do not warrant the grounding of the fleet. “Right now, we believe that risk — although it’s not as low as we would like it — is low enough to safely operate the airplane at the current tempo,” said officer Gen. Mike Hostage.