Aviator morale plummeted in 2012 when it became evident that the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighters were choking their pilots. The stealth fliers’ moods got so bad that the flying branch assigned a psychologist to help with “allaying pilot concerns.”
That’s one surprising revelation in Air Combat Command’s official history for 2012, a heavily-redacted copy of which War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Hiring a head shrink was just one of the things the Air Force tried in its desperation to avoid a total morale collapse. For starters, “the Air Force Safety Center conducted formal surveys to determine the mindset of Raptor pilots and maintainers,” according to the history.
And Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Hostage completed flight training in the F-22 “to show his faith in the aircraft,” the history explained.
The emergency measures worked, preventing a partial mutiny from spreading and possibly sidelining the roughly 180 F-22s, America’s most high-tech warplanes.
In January 2012, Air Force investigators determined that the blame lay mostly with a special pressure suit that F-22 pilots wear to keep blood flowing to the brain during intensive maneuvers.
The flying branch removed the Combat Edge “upper pressure garment” from Raptor-fliers’ routine kit—instead handing out the UPG only for actual combat sorties. Two years later in September this year, F-22s flew their very first wartime missions, bombing facilities belonging to the Islamic State militant group in Syria.
Technically speaking, the F-22 pilots’ problem was “hypoxia”—a shortage of oxygen that can cause confusion, slow reaction times and even blackouts. Hypoxia is a potential problem in any high-performance warplane, but the Raptor poisoned or suffocated its pilots nearly 27 times per 100,000 flight hours—a rate at least nine times higher than other U.S. fighters.
Data the Air Force provided to Congress showed the F-22 experiencing 26.43 instances of hypoxia or “hypoxia-like” problems for every 100,000 flight hours, compared to 2.34 instances per 100,000 hours for the F-15E and 2.96 for the latest version of the F-16.
For years since the F-22 entered front-line service in 2005, pilots complained of hypoxia-like symptoms, including a distinctive and irritating cough that pilots took to calling “Raptor cough.”
One Air Force widow claimed her F-22 pilot husband’s coughing contributed to his suicide. Pilot blackout may have contributed to the fatal crash of a Raptor in Alaska in 2010. For four months in 2011, the Air Force grounded the entire F-22 fleet as a special task force investigated the problems, ultimately recommending limits on the pressure garment.
In early 2013, however, the Air Force admitted there was no cure for Raptor cough.
Through it all, the 200 or so F-22 pilots grew steadily more afraid, resentful and mutinous—echoing an earlier crisis in the Air Force’s equally unhappy drone force.
In May 2012, Capt. Josh Wilson and Maj. Jeremy Gordon—both Raptor pilots in Virginia—went public with their fears. Wilson and Gordon told 60 Minutes that a “vast, silent majority” of Raptor pilots believed their jet was unsafe to fly.
“Allaying pilot concerns continued to consume a large portion of the task force’s effo1ts,” Air Combat Command explained in its 2012 history. “Early in the year, [head investigator] Gen. [Charles] Lyon advocated for and Gen. Hostage agreed to incorporate an ·aerospace psychologist into the task force.”
Among other duties, aerospace psychologists “frequently assist military personnel returning from combat zones, since many struggle with PTSD, chronic pain, depression, substance abuse and anxiety,” according to the Psychology Career Center, a Website.
Except in this case, the pilots’ mental suffering resulted not from combat, but from routinely flying their planes to prepare for combat.