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Air Force Not Ready to Ground F-22 Fleet, Schwartz Says

The Air Force isn’t considering grounding the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-22 fighter for the second time in a year during an investigation into the cause of potential oxygen deprivation among pilots, the service’s chief said.

“Based on what we know now, I would say no,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz said today, without elaboration, after speaking at a Brookings Institution event in Washington.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has directed the Air Force to impose new safety measures on the F-22, including limiting flight durations and speeding the installation of back-up oxygen systems, the Pentagon announced yesterday.

The stealthy F-22 Raptor, which has never flown in combat, was grounded for four months last year as the Air Force sought to diagnose what was causing hypoxia, oxygen deprivation producing pilot symptoms such as dizziness and blackouts. The plane was deemed operational in December 2005.

An Air Force-appointed scientific advisory board continues to delve into the potential causes. Two pilots went public with their concerns about the F-22’s safety, citing oxygen deprivation and disorientation, in a report last week on CBS’s “60 Minutes” program.

The Air Force has had 11 incidents since the four-month grounding was lifted. While each pilot experienced unique symptoms, “there is generally disorientation, perhaps some dizziness, a feeling of nausea in some cases,” Air Force General Janet Wolfenbarger told a Senate Armed Services Committee panel May 9.

“In the meantime, we have initiated 17 life-support enhancements to the F-22 as direct risk-mitigation steps,” she said. “Many of these enhancements are already fielded, including a modification to the emergency oxygen activation handle and an aircrew blood-oxygen sensor.

Operational F-22s are based at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia; Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska; Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, and Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

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