Pentagon restricts flights of F-22 fleet that choked pilots

A F-22 Raptor fighter jet flies in a training mission during Red Flag 12-3 over the Nevada Test and Training Range in this March 13, 2012 handout photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force (Reuters/U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Hubenthal/Handout)
After months of refusing to hear concerns from US Air Force pilots regarding the F-22 Raptor, the Pentagon has finally acknowledged safety issues with its most technologically advanced fleet and is now imposing flight restrictions on the aircraft.

The Air Force will immediately begin restricting flights for its fleet of $190 million apiece F-22 Raptor stealth jets after the Pentagon’s top-brass voiced concerns with the safety of the fighter planes. Effective at once, all 170 F-22 jets used by the Air Force will be required to engage only in operations that are "within proximity of potential landing locations,” insists US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

In a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley published this week, Panetta orders — among other items — that all F-22 jets must be equipped with an automatic backup oxygen system. Navy Captain John Kirby, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, confirms to the Associated Press that all Raptors will be ready by the end of the year.

The Associated Press reports that the latest news out of the Pentagon is particularly unusual because only rarely in the past has the head of the Defense Department made such specific claims, and that Secretary Panetta “signaled a new urgency” into the F-22 issue by doing so.

In 2010, pilot Jeff Haney died after an alleged malfunction in the F-22’s oxygen supply system left him unable to breath. Only this year, however, did the Pentagon officially put the blame on the pilot himself. Speaking out to ABC News over the incident, the pilot’s sister, Jennifer Haney, said the military’s mishandling of the incident reeks of a “cover up.” In the weeks since, things have only became worse for the military in regards to their multi-billion-dollar fleet.

The latest news comes only days after CBS News’ 60 Minutes program broadcast an interview with two servicemen who have flown F-22s and were so taken back afterwards that they publically announced that they would refuse to fly in the craft any further. Both Major Jeremy Gordon and Captain Josh Wilson said that they experienced symptoms typical with oxygen deprivation during and after their flights on the F-22 and sought congressional protection to ensure that they would be safe after speaking out. After going on air, however, it was revealed that a letter of reprimand send to Capt. Wilson was yet to be withdrawn by the military, suggesting that the Air Force was still considering the option of ending the pilot’s Armed Forces career for his failure to engage in F-22 missions.

After their 60 Minutes appearance, both pilots said that they had changed their mind and were willing to continue flying the jets. Now, however, it has been publicized that at least nine pilots in all have stepped forward to voice complaints with the plane.

When asked why Secretary Panetta is only now demanding that the Air Force take added safety precautions, Capt. Kirby adds to the AP that the head of the Defense Department has been aware of the issue “for quite some time,” but only after recent developments did he decide to "dive a little more deeply into the issue."

Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) was one of the lawmakers that accompanied Gordon and Wilson to the 60 Minutes studio to insure that both pilots had their statements witnessed by Congress in order to make sure they’d be covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act. Speaking to the AP on Panetta’s action, Sen. Warner called his statement a "step in the right direction" but added that "This is a confidence issue that has to be addressed fully and transparently by the Air Force."