September 14, 2012
Credit: Credit: U.S. Air Force
Rather than receiving too little oxygen, the pilots of one of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft could be taking in too much, according to a NASA assessment of the F-22 ’s life support system.
Pilots of the Raptor have for years experienced breathing difficulties and something now called “ Raptor cough.” The Air Force launched serious investigations into the problem in 2008, after pilots reported an increasing number of “hypoxia-like symptoms.”
Since that time, the Air Force has pointed to a “mosaic” of interrelated problems in the cockpit.
Independently, the NASA Engineering Safety Center conducted its own assessment, and principle engineer Clinton Cragg presented the findings during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Sept. 13. The assessment found that a high concentration of oxygen at low altitudes can lead to “absorption atelectasis,” in which too much oxygen can wash away necessary nitrogen within the lungs and cause lung tissue to collapse. The effects of high oxygen levels are compounded by the aircraft’s “inevitable acceleration,” Cragg said.
“Inappropriate inflation” of the pilots’ upper pressure garment further restricted breathing and reduced overall cardiac output, Cragg’s testimony said. In addition, “uncharacterized F-22 life support system vulnerabilities, such as pressure drops across components in the cockpit,” contributed to the trouble.
Cragg’s testimony also took issue with the F-22 pilot community’s reaction to the aircraft’s problems. “Differences in pilot breathing in the F-22 from other platforms was widely known and accepted as a normal part of flying the advanced aircraft,” Cragg ’s testimony said. “The acceptance of these phenomena as ‘normal’ could be seen as a ‘normalization of deviance.’” That is a NASA term of art to describe the lower standard of excellence accepted on components of the Challenger before the shuttle’s devastating explosion.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon says the service has put in place a system of fixes that will take care of the problem. That starts with replacing a valve on the upper pressure garmet that underwent a critical design review this week. “We’ll start getting it out to the fleet in November,” Lyon told reporters after the hearing. He added that a backup oxygen system will begin to be put into the fleet in January.