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May 15 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - May 15, 2012

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Well, good afternoon and thank you all for coming.  We'll make a brief statement and then open it up for the customary round of questions.   

            The -- Secretary Panetta has been closely following developments with the Air Force's F-22 fighter and the hypoxia-like symptoms experienced by F-22 pilots.  As our most advanced fighter aircraft, the capabilities provided by the fifth-generation F-22 are important to maintaining our air superiority and national security objectives, whether it's protecting air space or the United States or deploying overseas as part of our deterrence and engagement efforts.  Secretary Panetta supports the measures taken so far by the Air Force to pursue all plausible hypotheses and determine the root causes of the hypoxia- like symptoms experienced by F-22 pilots.  

            However, the safety of our pilots remains his first and foremost concern.  Therefore, in addition to those measures already taken by the Air Force to mitigate risks to our pilots, he is directing the Air Force to take three additional measures.  First, the Air Force will expedite installation of an automatic back-up oxygen system in all F-22 fighters.  Second, effective immediately, all F-22 flights will remain within the proximity of potential landing locations to enable quick recovery and landing should the pilot encounter unanticipated physiological conditions during flight.  That means long-duration air space control flights in Alaska will be performed by other aircraft. Third, the Air Force will provide to the secretary a monthly progress report as it continues to pursue aggressively the discovery of the root cause of these events.  

            Secretary Panetta believes the department must do everything possible to ensure pilot safety and minimize flight risks.  He will continue to closely monitor the Air Force's efforts to enhance the safety of this very important aircraft.   

            Bob? 

            Q:  George, on that topic, just a -- does the secretary consider grounding the aircraft again?  

            And also, does this restriction on the proximity of the landing site affect the deployment of the F-22s that are in the Middle East at the moment? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary believes that this is a prudent course of action to take at this time.  As I indicated, he will be receiving regular updates, and all options remain on the table going forward. 

            In terms of the deployment in southwest Asia, we believe that we can safely continue that deployment given the geography of the region. 

            Q:  Why not just ground the fleet until you know what's causing the oxygen problem? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Well, I think George said it well.  The secretary believes that this is the prudent course right now.  It allows us to continue to examine the aircraft closely and to try to figure out what happened.  There's a troubleshooting process that's going on right now.  So the aircraft being in operation assists in that process.  We believe we've mitigated the risks as much as possible, and again, safety of flight is paramount.  The secretary is going to continue to get updates, and if he has to make future decisions about the fleet, he'll do that.  But right now he believes -- and he is -- and he has been briefed very recently on this, very deeply on it.  He believes that this is the right course right now. 

            Q:  Could I follow on that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  The two 60 -- the two pilots who flew the F-22 that were interviewed on "60 Minutes" addressed that issue about how the Air Force needs -- says it needs to take, you know, tests from flights in the air to figure out what the problem is.  They describe themselves as guinea pigs.  How do you ensure that, you know, airmen who are flying the Raptor aren't being used as guinea pigs in this case? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I don't think we would ever refer to a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force as a guinea pig. 

            Q:  But they -- 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  They're highly trained, highly skilled.  We value their service and their expertise.  And frankly, that service and expertise is critical to helping us figure out what the problem is here. 

            MR. LITTLE:  (Name inaudible.) 

            Q:  On that same topic of this quick recovery issue, how -- what is -- how far can they fly, essentially, under that new guideline? You said that the -- they don't do any long-duration flight.  So what's their limitation now? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I believe it's situational more than anything, Justin.  And I don't -- I don't believe there's a nautical-mile limit here.  It's just about an appropriate level of proximity to strips so that if they needed to get down in an emergency, they could in a relatively easy, quick fashion.  But I don't -- there hasn't been a -- there's not a mile radius to put on this. 

            Q:  So it's about proximity to strips in Alaska, let's say, so they have to be aware of landing strips that are lengthy enough to accommodate their landing?  (Off mic.) 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Well, certainly the strips have got to be -- I mean, they have to be capable of handling that type of aircraft, absolutely.  But it's about just general proximity here. 

            Q:  So this is indefinite, until the problem is solved?  And what about if -- in combat -- (inaudible) -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Bob, the secretary will be receiving regular updates.  And once these problems are addressed, I'm sure he'll make further decisions in concert with the Air Force leadership. 

            Q:  Is the secretary satisfied with how the Air Force has been handling this, number one?  And number two, how will the Defense Department go about finding out the attitudes and the -- and the concerns that all the pilots have who fly the F-22? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think it's safe to say that the secretary believes that the Air Force leadership shares his sense of urgency on these issues.  And more broadly, he is deeply concerned about pilot safety.  And that's a paramount concern for him, and he believes it's a paramount concern, obviously, for Air Force leadership too.  So going forward, that's going to be a key metric, I think, that will drive his decision-making on this and other matters related to aircraft and other equipment in the U.S. military. 

            (Cross talk.) 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- the pilots the -- how do you gauge their attitudes, how are you going to figure out -- in other words, is there a concern -- does he have a concern that the other F-22 pilots, perhaps their concerns haven't been addressed or the -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, one of the drivers of his concerns for quite some time has been the expression by pilots of reticence to fly the aircraft.  So that has figured into his decision to direct these actions today.  He is very concerned about pilot safety, and he wants safety concerns to be addressed at all levels of command, through proper channels, and that's, I think, the direction he wants to ensure we head in.   

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