AF: F-22s authorized to fly again

The Air Force doesn't have a permanent fix for the Raptors' technical woes, but the jets are returning to service.

Air Force officials had eagerly telegraphed the announcement, and now it’s out: The F-22 fleet has been cleared to return to flight status, although engineers do not have a permanent answer for the oxygen system problems that had initially sidelined the jets.

Forthwith, here are the relevant parts of the Air Force statement in full:

The commander of Air Combat Command directed a stand-down of the fleet May 3 as a safety precaution, following 12 separate reported incidents where pilots experienced hypoxia-like symptoms. The incidents occurred over a three-year period beginning in April 2008. Officials remain focused on the priorities of aircrew safety and combat readiness. The return-to-fly plan implements several risk mitigation actions, to include rigorous inspections, training on life support systems, and continued data collection.

“We now have enough insight from recent studies and investigations that a return to flight is prudent and appropriate,” [Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton] Schwartz said. “We’re managing the risks with our aircrews, and we’re continuing to study the F-22’s oxygen systems and collect data to improve its performance.”

In a task force approach to implementation, Air Combat Command officials developed a comprehensive incremental return-to-fly plan that balances safety and the expedient qualification of pilots against the inherent risks of flying advanced combat aircraft, officials said.

The entire fleet will undergo an extensive inspection of the life support systems before returning to flight, with follow-on daily inspections, officials said. The aircraft is capable and authorized to fly above 50,000 feet. Pilots will use additional protective equipment and undergo baseline physiological tests. The return-to-fly process will begin with instructor pilots and flight leads regaining their necessary proficiency, then follow with other F-22 wingmen.

Prior to the stand down, ACC officials convened a Class E Safety Investigation Board in January 2011 to look into hypoxia-related reports. At the same time, a Hypoxia Deep-Dive Integrated Product Team began an in-depth study on safety issues involving aircraft oxygen generation systems.

In June 2011, the Secretary of the Air Force directed the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board to continue the oxygen generation study concurrent with the ongoing SIB. A releasable report will be made available later this year.

So after four months of twiddling their thumbs, pilots and crews at last will get to return to their work and begin re-honing the combat edge that dulled during the grounding. Air Combat Command officials are crossing their fingers that they can catch potential problems with their slow ramp back to operating and these new daily inspections.

But the nagging technical issues and the forthcoming scientific report mean there are more shoes to drop here — so stay tuned.