A few months ago, Air Force leaders noticed some very strange behavior from pilots in the cockpit of F-22 Raptor fighters. Some pilots sounded like they were drunk on the radio; others couldn’t even remember how to use the radio during flights. The symptoms resemble those of hypoxia, a condition due to a lack of oxygen.
Lab tests revealed that the pilots’ blood contained a host of toxic chemicals including oil fumes, anti-freeze and even propane. The Air Force grounded the entire stealthy F-22 fleet on May 03 and launched an investigation.
This week, the Air Force Times reports that they’re still stumped. They’ve figured out that toxins are making their way into the cockpit, but they don’t know how. They’ve check the jets’ life support systems, the oxygen masks, the pressurization systems, but they’ve yet to find the link, and there’s no indication to how close they might be to a solution.
One theory: Because of the harsh climate, pilots often start their jet engines inside a hangar before taking off. That could allow exhaust gases to be trapped in the building, sucked back into the engines, and ingested into the bleed air intakes located within the engines’ compressor sections that supply the On-Board Oxygen Generation System (or OBOGS). It would be analogous to a running the car in a closed garage.
But others say that many of the hypoxia incidents have occurred well into flights or even during a day’s second mission, long after the plane has left the hangar.
Unable to fly, pilots are stuck in simulators and runway taxiing exercises for safety’s sake. If pilots are grounded for more than 210 days, they all have to get retrained, inevitably an expensive option.
This is not the best news for a plan that’s fantastically expensive and problem-prone. Manufactured in Georgia and championed by Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, the jets were supposed to see their first combat action in Libya but lost the privilege after developing problems with communications and missile navigation systems. Meanwhile, folks at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) are starting to wonder why the government is still funding the program.
A Washington Post story from 2009 reported that an F-22 requires “more than 30 hours of maintenance for every hour in the skies, pushing its hourly cost of flying to more than $44,000.” The government has so far sunk billions into the erratic F-22 fleet.
When Defense Secretary Bob Gates challenged Congress to help him rein in wasteful defense spending, Saxby Chambliss, long an opponent of wasteful government spending, defended the F-22 program –and herein lies a serious problem in government spending: “If we shut down that line,” said Chambliss, “we’re talking about a loss of 95,000 jobs.”
And where are most of those jobs? At Lockheed Martin, which happens to have a facility in Marietta, GA. But Lockheed Martin knows how to protect its interests: Only the forward fuselage of the F-22 is assembled in Marietta. Other parts are made at Lockheed Martin facilities in Fort Worth, TX, and Meridian, MI, and the plane’s engine is built in Seattle. That’s lawmakers in four states that go to bat for Lockheed when talks of scrapping the F-22 come up because they’re protecting their constituents’ jobs. Ya think Chambliss and these other lawmakers will vote to end a program that puts their constituents out of work?
And it’s common practice to spread defense contracts “over several state and congressional districts, especially those of the congressional committees that affect defense, so that politicians have a stake in their prosperity.”
Chambliss himself says it: “if we truly want to stimulate the economy, there’s no better place to do that than defense spending.”
So here’s the question: Do you continue to fund a troubled government program that wastes taxes dollars because scrapping it would put 95-thousand people out of work? In other words, is the program too big to fail?