In the long term, NASA recommends end-to-end testing of the life-support system, environmental control system and aircrew flight equipment. The agency also recommends a reassessment of the life-support system in high-performance aircraft and a formal lessons-learned review of the Air Force-led investigation.
Lyon told lawmakers that in 2005 USAF rejected a back-up oxygen system that would have cost the government about $500,000 to ensure that the additional 15.4 lb. did not weigh down the aircraft. The weight issue is no longer a concern. “The performance of the aircraft is so magnificent that 15 lb. is not going to hurt,” Lyon says.
The general says he is looking at “intersections” among the findings of the Air Force's Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the NASA report that will be folded in with the final document he provides to Panetta. “Our work is not done,” he says.
The oxygen concentration issue is still being addressed by the Air Force. For now, the service is expected to follow through on the recommendations of an SAB report that calls for replacing the upper-pressure garment, seeking a back-up oxygen system and another system to avoid ground collisions—in case of pilot blackouts. Lyon expects to retrofit the upper-pressure gear with new valves by year-end at a cost of $3.7 million. The backup oxygen system will begin to enter the fleet in January at a fleet-wide cost of $51 million. A $26 million ground-collision avoidance system will also be added.
Lawmakers' reactions to the testimony are decidedly mixed. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) says he hoped the hearing would ease the minds of pilots and their families. But Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) is not sanguine that the underlying cause has been found. “I'm just not convinced we have the answer,” she says. “I think NASA needs to be privy to all the information. And all the reports should be made public.”
Rep. John Runyun (R-N.J.) emphasizes that pilot safety must be paramount. “We understand that we can change the physiology of a machine, but we can't change the physiology of a human being,” he notes. “We have to be really cautious.”