Photographer: Lee Jong-Geun-Korea-Pool/Getty Images

Navy Fix on Pilots' Oxygen Shortage Seen Stalled by Red Tape

  • Communications breakdowns cited in defense policy bill report
  • A $10 million contest would be authorized to find a solution

The Navy’s hunt for a solution to its top aviation safety issue -- oxygen deprivation and loss of cockpit cabin pressure in its training aircraft and fighters -- is hampered by communications breakdowns between engineers and pilots, according to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“While a lot of good work was being done and data being created and analyzed, those efforts are not always being effectively communicated down to the flightline, where the dangers” of oxygen-deprivation related physiological episodes, or PEs, “are most acute,” the committee said in the report it released late Tuesday on its fiscal 2018 defense policy bill, S 1519.

The senators urged the Navy “to consider designating a single individual for each” aircraft class affected -- F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets fighters, electronic jamming EA-18 Growlers and T-45 Goshawks trainers -- “to act as bridge between engineer and operator to ensure that a positive and frequent communications flow” increases as solutions are sought.

At the request of Republican committee member Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the bill would authorize the Defense Department to launch a nationwide competition with a $10 million prize to find a solution to the vexing and persistent problem. The Navy grounded its fleet of T-45s for two days in April -- including those flown at Naval Air Station Meridian in Wicker’s home state -- over the safety issue.

Steady Increases

All F-18 models, including the Super Hornet that President Donald Trump has championed, have shown steady annual increases in physiological episodes, according to service testimony in March. What’s more, the data show that incidents of oxygen deprivation and cabin decompression have escalated in the last year, while officials work to determine the root cause.

Still, lawmakers continued this year to add Boeing Co. F/A-18s over Trump’s official budget request for 14. In its “unfunded list” the Navy suggested adding $739 million for 10 more Super Hornets. The Senate panel’s bill would authorize the 10, while the House Armed Services Committee added eight in its authorization bill, H.R. 2810.

‘Getting Worse’

“While the committee understands Navy senior leadership is focused on the issue” and a team’s been in place since 2010 “to try and solve the issues, the committee is concerned that no solutions have been found at the same time that recent events indicate the situation may be getting worse,” the Senate panel wrote.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on pending legislation, but “the Navy appreciates all support, tools and authority that can help resolve this issue, both today and in the future,” Lieutenant Kara Yingling, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an email. If the provision calling for a contest becomes law, the “Navy will assess how best to employ such authority.”

“Minimizing the risks of physiological episodes remains the top safety priority for Naval Aviation -- and it will remain our top safety priority until we fully understand all possible causes and find solutions,” she said. “This is a complex issue, one without a single cause, and therefore, without a single solution. We’ve established a dedicated team of professionals from various fields to attack this complex issue, and we will stay after it until we fix it.”she said.

The rate of reported occurrences of the physiological episodes per 100,000 flight hours almost doubled in the year ended Oct. 31 from the previous year on older F-18 models, according to Navy statistics provided to House Armed Services.

The Navy isn’t the only service dealing with oxygen deprivation, also known as hypoxia, and the F-18 isn’t the only fighter jet affected. Luke Air Force Base in Arizona last month temporarily grounded all of its F-35 planes made by Lockheed Martin Corp. because pilots there experienced hypoxia.

The Senate panel said it’s also concerned that while the Navy “has repeatedly stated that their efforts to solve the problem are ‘resourced unconstrained’ it is unclear how much money and manpower is being expended on the effort.”

Since money is flowing from a variety of sources, “it is difficult to get a clear picture of the total effort, inhibiting proper oversight and limiting analysis of where” money could be added to accelerate the effort, it said.

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