Hazard is an inescapable part of being a military pilot. However, the “physiological episodes” pilots are experiencing in certain aircraft seem to be in a different category. They have all the signs of equipment malfunction.
In other words, systems that are meant to keep pilots safe instead cause disorientation or worse.
At least that’s the working theory. The problem: The military, as Express-News Staff Writer Sig Christenson recently wrote, hasn’t found the root problem with the suspected culprit, an oxygen delivery system called the Onboard Oxygen Generation System, or OBOGS.
As Christenson reported, pilots flying one of the Air Force’s principal training planes have reported 39 unexplained physiological episodes caused by a lack of oxygen since the fleet resumed operations early this year. The planes were grounded after a high number of incidents — 22 — were reported in January.
Christenson’s article primarily highlighted the troubled T-6A Texan II trainer used by the Air Force training command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. But Navy pilots flying the T-45 Goshawk at Naval Air Station Kingsville have also had these experiences.
This is a mystery that must be solved. It’s clear that the potential for death or serious injury is the threat here. So devoting the resources necessary to conclusively pinpoint the problem with OBOGS — or ruling it out — strikes us as the necessary step to eliminate these episodes, also described as hypoxia. This is a condition with symptoms ranging from fear, anxiety and confusion to giddiness and loss of consciousness.
Equipping these planes with an automatic backup oxygen system — which a study that will end this month could conclude — seems a plausible measure, but we wonder if the need to install a backup system points to the need to replace OBOGS altogether or fix it.
These episodes are not trivial. Imagine flying at high altitudes and suddenly getting confused about whether your plane is leading the formation. Or noting that although you — the guy who is supposed to land the plane — are experiencing symptoms, the person you’re training isn’t. Or flying when hypoxia hits and you, the instructor, and the trainee have to bail out, the plane crashing.
“When I explained it to my wife, it was all the wrong reasons,” an instructor pilot told Christenson. The pilot asked not to be identified, fearing retribution from commanders. “I’m fearful for second lieutenants that are flying a bad piece of machinery. I’m fearful for how this could be detrimental to my career with the airlines, and my wife is like, ‘You should be afraid for your life. You should be afraid that you’re going to crash an airplane and you’re going to die.’”
It is a legitimate fear.
Some Air Force pilots suspect hypoxia was involved in the death of one pilot in 2010, Capt. Jeff Haney. Since then, an automatic backup oxygen system was installed throughout the Air Force’s F-22A fleet.
Being a pilot — fighter or otherwise — is risky enough. Safety depends on being as sharp as possible while flying. Any equipment that compromises that must be fixed, backed up or eliminated. Determining which must be a priority.
There should be no half measures.