Just this week, the F-35, America’s next generation of fighter aircraft, halted air operations at an Arizona air base after pilots suffered symptoms that mimic hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency, while in flight. The symptoms are: dizziness, euphoria or even loss of consciousness.
This comes as one of America’s most violent combat aircraft, the heavy demands on the F/A-18, is in the context of the review by the Navy after increased reports that the pilots were in harm’s way even before they are in the fight. The problem? An unreliable supply resulting in hypoxia.
Fox News got an exclusive look at the results of that extensive review Thursday afternoon. The Navy also assessed the problems with the T-45, used for training pilots. In April, the Navy stopped training flights in the T-45’s, as a result of concerns about the safety. These flights have not resumed.
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In the review, the Navy”, examined the facts, circumstances and processes surrounding the recent physiological episodes (PEs), where T-45 and FA-18 crew, including the way in which these problems have been fixed.”
“Physiological Episodes (PEs) act as crew, people with disabilities, to experience the performance due to a variety of factors,” the Navy said.
The evaluation focuses on two categories: “in Which the aircraft cabin pressurization system does not work as designed, which leads to decompression sickness (DCS); and where the breathing air supply system is not sufficient air volume, oxygen concentration or purity, which lead to various forms of hypoxia.” They add that the human factors such as fatigue, dehydration, diet, nutrition, and anxiety can complicate the problem.
Since 2009, the Department of the Navy has seen a rise in risk reports with regard to the physiological episodes in the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet aircraft.
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By means of a freedom of information act request, Fox News learned that since 1997, 15 pilots have been killed in similar incidents.
Also, according to congressional testimony by a Marine Admiral, from 2015 to 2016, the percentage of these dangerous episodes increased in some of the F/A-18 models by 90 percent.
The comprehensive review released Thursday said the Navy has so far not been able to resolve the issue.
“To date,” the review said: “finding a solution for the us Navy and the us Marine Corps’ high-performance jet aircraft PE challenge proved to be a bridge too far.”
It is a complex problem, the review says, without a single cause and therefore no single solution.
One of the reasons offered to explain the increase of the PEs may not be that they are more often, but that is probably more a reflection of a change in the crew, the awareness and the reporting than a sudden increase in the PEs. So the comparison of pre – and post-2010 PE is essentially impossible and may lead to inappropriate conclusions.”
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As they look for a remedy, they say: this is the Navy, “No. 1 safety is our priority” and they have announced an “unconstrained resource” approach in finding a solution. In other words, they are giving the experts what they need to do to fix the problems.
A suggestion, in the review, is to “create a single, dedicated organisation to lead Naval PE resolution efforts. This temporary organization must be led by a Navy Pilot of the Flag/General Officer, to embrace the “unlimited source” approach and make full use of all stakeholders.” Also, they are seen to “re-design of aircraft systems to meet the oxygen system for the generation of technical requirements.”
Captain Marc Miguez, Carrier Air Wing Commander, CVW-3, told Fox News the Navy is looking for the problem.
“We were on to note that there is an increase in the physiological episodes, and we have attacked it head on,” he said.
He called it an “all-hands-on-deck focused effort” to say “we have everything we need to finally solve and get the ultimate solution for this problem.”
Miguez feels his pilots are not in danger.
“There are of course risks with it, but the way in which we implement our safety programs and the way we care for our people as they fly by and also the way we train,” he said, “I have no worries that we are not at the top of our performance and we do it safely.”
The comprehensive review was provided to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Bill Moran. In an exclusive interview, he told Fox News’ Lea Gabrielle “safety is always our highest priority. Right? I mean, naval aviation is inherently risky. We need not add to that risk by not understanding what the cause of the problem.”
He added that gaining that understanding is not so simple. He told Gabrielle “an elusive solution here is just a reflection of how complex the system itself. So it is not a simple system; a platform as the high-performance jet that’s increasing in pressure altitude increasing pressure to demand, rising human needs.”
He says that they are convinced that they solve the problems.
Moran has to admit that the T-45 concerns were not on the navy’s radar.
“Sneaking up on us, frankly,” he said. “I think that all the leadership was caught surprised at how quickly we saw an increase in the number of physiological episodes.”
He said that the Navy is near the pilots back to the training in the airplane and she’s flying instructors with changes “to help to collect data and also to keep their expertise at the right level.”
He went on to say that “leadership at the local level was really struggling to get ahead of this problem.” But, after a meeting with the instructor pilots, they told him that they had faith in their chain of command.
“They believe,” Moran said, “that everyone has their best interest of their safety – first and foremost in our thoughts.”
Fox News Correspondent Lea Gabrielle, a former Navy F/A-18C pilot, flew missions in Afghanistan from the deck of the USS George Washington for Operation Enduring Freedom.