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July 24 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - July 24, 2012

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon. 

            On Friday, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, Chief of Staff General Schwartz, and other Air Force leaders briefed Secretary Panetta on the Air Force's extensive analysis of hypoxia-like symptoms in the F-22 aircraft.  As you know, the F-22 has been flying under restrictions ordered by Secretary Panetta since May 15 of this year.  Leaders informed Secretary Panetta that the Air Force is confident the root cause of the issue is the supply of oxygen delivered to pilots, not the quality of oxygen delivered to pilots.  The need to explore both possibilities, the supply and quality, was identified earlier this year by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. 

            To correct the supply issue and reduce the incidence of hypoxia-like events, the Air Force has made two changes to the aircraft cockpit life support system.  First, the Air Force will replace a valve in the upper pressure garment vest worn by pilots during high-altitude missions.  The valve was causing the vest to inflate and remain inflated under conditions where it was not designed to do so, thereby causing breathing problems for some pilots.  The garment has been suspended from flight since June.

            Second, the Air Force has increased the volume of air flowing to pilots by removing a filter that was installed to determine whether there were any contaminants present in the oxygen system.  Oxygen contamination was ruled out.  The Air Force is also exploring improving the oxygen delivery hose and its physical connections.

            After receiving assurances that these corrective measures would minimize hypoxia-like events in the F-22, the secretary approved the Air Force planned sequence of actions to remove flight restrictions over time.  This process starts today.

            Secretary Panetta has authorized the deployment of a squadron of F-22s to Kadena Air Base in Japan.  The aircraft will fly to Japan under altitude restrictions via the North Pacific transit route.  Following completion of the flight to Japan, the Air Force will recommend resuming most long-duration flights.

            The Air Force will also proceed with installing a new backup emergency oxygen system and pursue implementations of all Scientific Advisory Board actions.  Five of the actions are complete, and the remaining three -- first, installation of a cockpit-mounted oxygen sensor; second, installation of an improved pilot oxygen sensor; and, third, the initial National Aeronautics and Space Administration's report -- are on track to be completed by the end of the summer.

            The Air Force will brief Secretary Panetta in early fall on the results of the modified upper pressure garment testing.  Pending completion of the Scientific Advisory Board recommendations, the NASA independent analysis, and fielding of the modified upper pressure garment, the Air Force will seek approval to remove F-22 altitude restrictions.

            Finally, following the completion of these actions and the installation of the backup oxygen system, the Air Force will request resumption of the aerospace alert control alert missions in Alaska.  Until that time, this mission will continue to be flown by other aircraft.

            Along with Air Force leadership, the secretary believes that pilot safety is paramount.  The gradual lifting of restrictions will enable the Air Force to resume normal F-22 operations over time, while ensuring the safety of the incredible airmen who fly this critical aircraft.

            The F-22 aircraft have flown more than 7,000 sorties, totaling more than 9,000 hours, since the last unexplained incident involving hypoxia-like symptoms occurred on March 8, 2012.  Two incidents involving oxygen-related concerns since then were determined to be mechanical malfunctions, in other words, explained incidents.  On June 26, an incident at Langley Air Force Base was caused by a faulty valve in the cockpit.  On July 6, at Hickam Air Force Base, indicators in an F-22 signaled a possible oxygen problem, but the issue resolved itself in flight.

            In both cases, the pilots and aircraft have returned to flight status.  The pilots have been issued a clean bill of health, and relevant cockpit components, valves, and connections were replaced by maintenance personnel.

            Two other brief announcements before taking your questions.  Today here in the briefing room, at 2:30 p.m., Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz will review you on his four years as the Air Force's senior uniformed leader and his nearly 40 years of his distinguished military service.

            Tomorrow at 10 a.m. Secretary Panetta and Secretary Shinseki will testify before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee on assistance for servicemembers returning to civilian life.

            All right.  I'll turn it over to you all.  Thank you.

            John?

            Q:  George, has the Japanese government been informed of the decision to send the F-22s to Kadena?  And if so, have they expressed any safety concerns in that regard?

            MR. LITTLE:  The government of Japan has been informed of this move of the F-22s to Kadena.  I'm unaware of any concerns expressed with respect to safety.

            Jeff?

            Q:  When is it expected that all Air Force -- that all the altitude restrictions will be lifted?  And why didn't the secretary lift all restrictions on Friday, when he was given the explanation for what's causing this?

            MR. LITTLE:  I think the answer to the second part of your question, Jeff, is very simple, and that is that the Air Force recommended a phased approach to resuming normal flight operations, while re-engineering of certain components of the life support system inside the aircraft occurs and components are replaced.

            So this is a phased approach.  This is prudent.  It was recommended by Air Force leadership.  And the secretary approved their recommendations.

            Q:  Do you have the timeline for all restrictions being lifted?

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the precise timeline.  Perhaps the Air Force can give you more detail on the timelines associated with each of the phases here.

            Dave?

            Q:  When is this deployment to Kadena?  And how far away from a landing field does that transit take them?

            MR. LITTLE:  The deployment could occur at any moment.  The way the planes are going to fly will allow them to be near runways, through -- and forgive me for referring to my -- the North Pacific transit route, which will allow the planes to be near land as they fly to Kadena.

            Q:  What are the phases until the day it was -- had to stay within 30 minutes of landing fields --

            MR. LITTLE:  Right.

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