The head of naval aviation has extended a three-day grounding of all the Navy's T-45 training jets indefinitely after a group of instructor pilots refused to fly the aircraft.
After a visit from Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker Friday to the Navy's flight training school in Meridian, Mississippi, the Navy put out a press release announcing that the three-day pause in T-45 flights has been extended while Navy engineers try and figure out what's causing a spike in dangerous physical symptoms in pilots brought on by a drop in oxygen in the cockpit.
"The Navy implemented an operational pause for its T-45C fleet Wednesday at the direction of Shoemaker in response to the T-45C pilots' feedback about the potential for PEs," the release said. "That operational pause has been extended to allow Naval Aviation Leadership time to review the engineering data and developing a path forward for the fleet that will ensure the safety of its aircrew."
The grounding comes after dozens of instructor pilots refused to fly the T-45 in recent days because of the troubling rise in in-flight physiological episodes such as hypoxia, which can cause shortness of breath, tingling sensations, sweating and wheezing. According to a Fox News report, the pilot boycott was in part because the instructors felt like the Navy was ignoring their concerns.
The Navy has acknowledged communication issues between leadership and the pilots in regards to their concerns with the aircraft. The Navy said about 40 percent of the flights on March 31 were canceled after pilots refused to fly under rules that allow them to cancel a flight if they think its unsafe.
The cancellations, which was first reported by Fox News, triggered a full-court press from naval aviation to try and address the pilots' concerns, including Shoemaker's visit.
Fixing the issues with the T-45 is the naval aviation's top priority, Shoemaker said in the release.
"This will remain our top safety priority until we fully understand all causal factors and have eliminated [physiological episode]s as a risk to our flight operations," Shoemaker said in the release. "The Naval Aviation Enterprise has been directed to expedite solutions for PEs and to prioritize those efforts."
Shoemaker has promised that he'll put as much money as it takes to figure out what's causing the issues with the cockpit oxygen systems in the T-45 and in the F/A-18, which has also seen a rise in oxygen deprivation symptoms. The filter on the On Board Oxygen Generating System, or OBOGS, has been improved and installed on the T-45, the release said.
Special tubes that detect contaminants in the oxygen system — another cause of the dangerous symptoms — are being distributed in Meridian as well, which will help the Navy identify issues with specific craft, the release said.
But finding the issues with OBOGS has been a vexing and elusive issue for the Navy, and one they've been unable to completely solve despite putting enormous resources towards it.
The grounding applies to all 197 of the Navy's T-45s. Marine Corps fighter pilots are also trained at Meridian.
Shoemaker was joined in Meridian by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has taken an interest in the T-45 issues.
Wicker told a local TV stationthat the Navy was planning to send a couple of the T-45s to Naval Air Station Patuxent River to be broken down and evaluated for issues.
"This is now the top priority of naval aviation, to get to the bottom of this, to solve this," Wicker said. "We’re being told in this respect that money is no object that the necessary resources are going to be devoted to solving this problem."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.