Two Air Force F-22 Raptor pilots have taken the unprecedented action of explaining their refusal to fly the aircraft to a national television audience. Appearing in uniform and without the permission of their superiors, Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Joshua Wilson told 60 Minutes interviewer Lesley Stahl they’ve invoked federal military whistleblower protection in their open defiance of an Air Force decision to keep flying the aircraft even though they say the majority of pilots are suffering health problems because of something wrong with the oxygen system. As AVweb has extensively reported, some, including both Wilson and Gordon, have become disoriented in flight, something that happens at a rate that far exceeds the norm for military aircraft. The officers say pilots have been issued oxymeters and the Air Force briefly equipped the Raptors with charcoal filters in the oxygen system to remove contaminants (the filters themselves caused some pilots to cough up black mucus and have since been removed) but nothing has been done to solve the actual problem.
The F-22 was grounded for months while engineers looked for that root cause but when they didn’t the aircraft was returned to service. After their inflight incidents, Wilson and Gordon said they wouldn’t fly the aircraft anymore and have been threatened with dismissal. They also said that while not all pilots have experienced the hypoxia-like symptoms in flight, most complain of the “Raptor cough,” a chronic hacking that is common thread among these elite pilots. They said other pilots likened themselves to laboratory animals because the Air Force is using them to gather data on potential sources of the problem. Senior Air Force officials interviewed by the program said they intend to keep the aircraft flying. “Ideally I want the risk as low as possible. I’m not able to drive it as low in this airplane as I am with others because of this unknown circumstance, but I have driven it down to a level where we believe we can safely operate the airplane,” said Gen. Michael Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command. Both pilots said they’d like nothing better than for the aircraft to be fixed so they can fly it again, calling it “invincible” as a fighting platform, but Wilson said it shouldn’t be flown until it’s fixed. “I think we grounded it for a reason, you know, back a year ago. We haven’t done a single thing to fix it. So I think we need to reassess why we got back in the air in the first place.”