Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, dressed down an Air Force general during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday over the service’s focus on training amid unsolved issues with oxygen deprivation among pilots.
Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, deputy chief of staff for operations for the Air Force, said the service is taking a holistic training approach in its attempts to root out the causes and solve the oxygen problems that are plaguing military aircraft.
But Turner, who is chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee, was not satisfied with the answer, saying mechanical problems with fighter jets and training aircraft and not improper training are likely causing the rash of incidents.
“No one ever came to us and tried to blame the pilots and say it’s just an issue of training,” Turner said. “There is something wrong with the systems that these pilots are relying on for their lives and that we’re asking them to rely on.”
It was the fifth and most recent hearing Turner’s subcommittee has held on pilot hypoxia, and comes after the Air Force grounded T-6 training jets last week after more incidents cropped up. Over the past year, the military services have grounded Navy T-45 trainers, F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs.
Nowland and other officials testified that the military has still not found a smoking gun or isolated the causes of the hypoxia, but are beginning to focus in on the pilots themselves.
“If you got the impression during my testimony that we are blaming pilots, we are not,” Nowland told Turner.
For example, the Air Force crews had not been properly trained on how to use a chest valve on the F-22 Raptor fighter jet’s life support system. Meanwhile, Nowland said grounding of the T-6 trainers is believed to be caused by a lack of maintenance.
“We never trained our technicians on how to maintain that piece of equipment,” he said. “Our suspicion is our maintenance of our onboard oxygen generating system for our T-6s after having flown them for 2.1 million hours needs to be repaired. So, we believe there’s a repair but we don’t know that for sure.”
Clinton Cragg, principal engineer at the NASA Engineering and Safety Center, authored a report to Turner’s committee that was completed last year and testified that the military still lacks the data needed to understand the problem.
“When we went to look further, what we found was there is hardly any information on the human in the cockpit. We don’t have the amount of oxygen in his mask, the amount of CO2 in his mask, the kind of pressure you want to know about in the cockpit, the breathing rates, those kind of things,” Cragg said. “What we really need is a picture of the pilot, and we don’t have that yet.”
The Navy has created a task force that is beginning to take those measurements.
Rear Adm. Sara Joyner, who leads the task force, said it has put systems into some aircraft to measure the air surrounding pilots in flight to look for clues to the problem.
So far, the Navy has only conducted three of the test flights, and the data is inconclusive, Joyner said.
“There are many difficulties. It is probably one of the most difficult aspects of this problem, but we’re working closely with the Air Force to do this,” she said.