Panetta puts limits on F-22 flights after reports of pilot dizziness

An Illinois Congressman said this week that an Air Force whistleblower won’t get in trouble on his watch.

After a number of Air Force members voicing public concern with the safety of the brand-new F-22 Raptor grew from two to nine, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced this Tuesday that the fighters’ flights would be limited to regions and locations in which it would be easy to land quickly, should pilots experience any problems.

Problems with the F-22 date back to 2008, when pilots first reported symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, while flying the craft. In Nov. 2010, an F-22 pilot crashed into an Alaska mountainside in an accident later determined to have been a result of hypoxia. Though the Air Force cleared its Raptor fleet to fly last September after first grounding the planes for inspection, then installing new equipment and implementing more thorough oversight, pilots and flight surgeons have come forward in recent weeks to express fears about seeing it airborne once more. Two pilots appeared on the CBS program 60 Minutes earlier this month to say they would no longer fly the F-22; the program also reported there had been 11 new cases of hypoxia since September.

Though acquisition of the aircraft has been a decades-long process and unit cost rose to $412 million per plane this year, making it the nation’s most expensive jet, conservatives have rigorously defended the F-22, calling it the world’s most advanced fighter and an answer to technology developments in China and Russia. Lockheed Martin delivered its 195th and last F-22 to the Air Force earlier this month, making the U.S. the only country with an operational 5th-generation fighter.

After Panetta’s announcement Tuesday, Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger (Ill.) reaffirmed his support of the F-22, but said he would fight to protect Air Force whistleblowers and to make sure the service was working to make the aircraft as safe as possible.

“We have a lot of questions that still need answered,” he said. “Just as importantly, we want to make sure the pilots understand they can talk about their concerns.”

He challenged the Air National Guard to withdraw threats of reprimand leveled at Capt. Joshua Wilson, one of the two pilots who appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about the F-22.

“It’s an extraordinary step to come forward, even under anonymity,” said Kinzinger, a former airman. “That’s not something that’s taken lightly or done without serious issues.”

Joining Kinzinger in support of the pilots was Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who said he would continue to press the Air Force for more studies on the safety of the Raptor.

“I think (Panetta) has taken an appropriate first step here by limiting the flight path,” he said. “I want to see some more of this data.”

Warner said his support of the F-22 program remains strong.

“We are proud in Virginia that the Air Force has chosen Langley to fly these,” he said. “These are the most powerful jets in the world.”