The third time the high-pitched alarm rang “deedle deedle” in the F/A-18F Super Hornet’s cockpit, it was clear that something with the air flowing into their regulators had gone horribly wrong.
“That’s when I realize my lips were tingling, my fingers are tingling, and I’m like, ‘S—, man, something’s wrong,’ ” a Navy pilot recalled. “And the guy in the back’s like, ‘Hey, dude! My fingers are blue!’ ”
They had just taken off from Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., when they recognized the blurred judgment and delayed reflexes caused by a lack of oxygen. Suddenly the pilot had to figure out how to land the $65 million jet on a cloudy day, in a rocky stretch of Nevada where mountains peak at 6,000 feet.
“So the problem is, how low can you go? And you’re doing this hypoxic,” recalled the 1,000-hour West Coast-based Hornet pilot, who asked not to be named out of concern over his 10-year career.
The pilot and naval flight officer were suffering from a lack of oxygen to the body’s tissues, a condition known as hypoxia, which causes tingling and numbness leading to confusion and eventually to unconsciousness. Some will lose the capacity to speak, others are disoriented to the point of acting drunk.
Physiological episodes — including hypoxia and decompression sickness from loss of cockpit air flow — which are hard to diagnose after the fact, are a confirmed cause in at least 15 naval aviation deaths in the past two decades — and aviators are worried more pilots may die before officials fix the problems.
Naval Air Systems Command is scrambling to implement fixes, but the brass has underplayed the severity and frequency of the danger since it emerged in a February congressional hearing, according to interviews with pilots and official reports.
These show a troubling rise in the number of breathing and pressurization problems, and that Navy and Marine F/A-18 Hornet and EA-18G Growler aviators view the problematic On-Board Oxygen Generation System as the fleet’s most pressing safety issue 10 times over. Despite these issues, aviation bosses have not grounded the fleet, a common response to aircraft safety issues.
“There’s only one thing that scares the s— out of guys that fly the airplane, and it’s OBOGS,” the pilot said in an interview.
That day in Nevada, the pilot and the NFO pulled out their backup oxygen bottles, landed the plane and met with the squadron’s safety officer to file a report. It turned out, the pilot said, that the jet’s OBOGS had stopped producing oxygen. What’s more, he added, the filtering material inside the system had just been cleaned and it was the jet’s first flight with a fresh oxygen generator.
That was back in 2007, when aviators reported annually a dozen or so reports of physiological episodes — the technical term for the effects when a plane stops producing oxygen, pumps a toxin into the cockpit or loses pressurization.
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