The Defense Department has lifted flight restrictions on F-22s in place since May. Pilots of F-22s equipped with an automatic backup oxygen system will no longer be directed to stay within 30 miles of a safe landing area. (Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker / Air Force)
Most of the Air Force's F-22 fleet has returned to unrestricted flight operations after being limited for nearly a year to flying within 30 minutes of a safe landing area and at lower altitudes because of safety concerns.
Air Combat Command announced today that the restrictions mandated by then-Secretary Leon Panetta in May have been lifted for F-22s that have been retrofitted with automatic backup oxygen systems. The new oxygen systems will be installed on all of the stealth fighters by July 2014.
F-22s have resumed aerospace control alert missions in Alaska and are no longer restricted to flying within a 30-minute flying distance from a suitable airfield, said ACC spokeswoman Kelly Sanders.
The Air Force grounded the F-22 fleet for four months in 2011 after more than a dozen pilots complained of hypoxia — nausea, dizziness and disorientation — while in flight. The Defense Department placed limits on altitude and flying distance from airfields in May, weeks after two F-22 pilots appeared on “60 Minutes” and said they were afraid to fly the plane.
In July, investigators traced the primary cause of pilot hypoxia to a leaky valve in the pilots' Combat Edge life-support vest, which caused the vest to inflate unnecessarily at lower altitudes and restricted the pilots' ability to breathe. New valves were installed in January.
The Air Force also determined the F-22 should be equipped with an automatic backup oxygen system, instead of the manually operated backup that had been installed on the jet. In a fatal crash in Alaska in November 2010, Air Force pilot Capt. Jeff Haney was unable to activate the manual backup oxygen as his plane spun out of control, according to a crash investigation. Haney's death led to two years of investigations and charges that the Air Force was not adequately addressing pilots' complaints.
Installation of the backup oxygen system began at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in January. F-22s in Alaska that handle the aerospace alert mission installed the system in February.
Earlier this month, F-22s from the 94th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron deployed to Osan Air Base, Korea, as a part of exercise Foal Eagle.