The Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz gave approval for 160 F-22 Raptor aircraft to resume flying at altitude above 50,000 feet beginning this coming Wednesday. A new set of measures part of an Air Combat Command contingency plan will see pilots receive daily physiological tests as well as aircraft On Board Oxygen Generation Systems OBOGS being thoroughly monitored and inspected on a daily basis. The OBOGS is at the root cause of the stand-down grounding order of the aircraft issued as a safety precaution on May 3rd 2011 following a series of incident including at least 12 cases of hypoxia-type symptoms going back to April 2008 and a fatal crash in which pilot Captain Jeffrey Haney lost his life in November 2010 during a night time flight exercise near his home base at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Although results of the crash investigation have not been available, the OBOGS is also suspected.
The return-to-fly plan developed by the ACC will actively mitigate risks through continuous data collection and active monitoring of life support systems on board the aircraft in addition to its crews health. Pilots are being directed to use additional protective gear. No definitive conclusion has been published regarding the suspected OBOGS while additional investigations are still ongoing; specifically through the Class E Safety Investigation Board that has been convened since January 2011 and whose findings are due by the end of the year. The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board is also conducting its study surrounding the oxygen generation system since June 2011 as per the secretary of the Air Force. Last, an Hypoxia Deep-Dive Integrated Product Team is also involved in defining risks for aircraft OBOGS.
The incremental nature of the return-to-fly process will permit crews to gradually reclaim proficiency in flying the aircraft with priority given to instructors. The Air Force web site quoted General Mike Hostage, commanding officer of the Air Combat Command as saying “It’s important we safely return the F-22 to flight and provide the Raptor’s dominant combat airpower for combatant commanders.” this remark emphasized the critical role that air dominance plays in US strategy as well as the unique ability of the F-22, the only operational fifth generation fighter aircraft to help achieve air dominance. However following the MAKS airshow this past August, many Defense analysts agree that evolving designs from the Chinese J-20 and particularly the Russian Sukhoi T-50 stealth prototypes will attempt to challenge the F-22 pre-eminence by 2016 when these aircraft will likely to begin operational deployments.