The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson will hunt for answers to determine if on-board oxygen generation equipment on the nation’s newest multi-million dollar stealth fighter caused pilots to experience a loss of oxygen in flight.
Researchers expected to start work today at the 711th Human Performance Wing’s $1.5 million On-Board Oxygen Generation System Laboratory to investigate four “OBOGS” units taken off F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter jets based at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
The lab has two altitude chambers and a computer-controlled machine that mimics a pilot’s breathing in the cockpit at simulated altitudes up to 100,000 feet, according to George W. Miller, OBOGS research team leader at the 711th Human Performance Wing’s Airman Systems Directorate.
Miller said the research lab is not replicated anywhere else in the world.
“The big takeaway here is we’ve got fully automated capability to duplicate what’s happening on an aircraft and that capability gives us a chance to find out what potentially is at the root cause of these physiological events that are occurring on some of these jets,” he said.
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Inside one of the chambers, a simulated pilot wears a helmet and oxygen mask. Cockpit and flight conditions where hypoxia-like incidents were reported can be recreated in the lab, including the breathing gas compounds at the time, he said.
Researchers track results on three large-screen TV-sized monitors.
“We look at this as kind of an enduring capability, one that is sort of a national asset and available to the Navy and Air Force to use,” said Douglas Hopkins, 711th Human Performance Wing chief engineer.
Researchers cannot definitively say the OBOGS equipment caused the hypoxia-like reported incidents among F-35A pilots at Luke, but the extensive tests were expected to verify if the oxygen system was fully operational, officials said.
Miller anticipated the research would take about four months. “There’s a lot of work to be done yet,” he said.
Wright-Patt investigators were part of a team set this week to visit the Arizona air base in a search for possible environmental clues related to air quality that may have played a role in potential contamination of the F-35 oxygen-supply system, officials said. The OBOGS equipment is located in the jet’s wheel well.
The F-35, manufactured by Lockheed Martin and years in development, is the nation’s newest fifth-generation stealth fighter jet. Different variants fly with the Air Force and Marine Corps and the aircraft will fly with the Navy before the end of the decade. The Air Force version of the jet costs about $108 million each.
A unique lab
The OBOGS lab was set up at Wright-Patterson in late 2014 after several pilots reported hypoxia-like, or oxygen deprivation symptoms, in the F-22 Raptor, Miller said. The F-22 has since returned to full flying duties.
The OBOGS lab is more accessible and capable than private labs Miller said he used in the interim.
AFRL has worked with researchers at Naval Research Medical Unit-Dayton at Wright-Patterson to find the cause of pilots reporting they are not receiving enough air not only in the latest Air Force stealth fighters, but in the Navy’s F/A-18 fighter jet and T-45 Goshawk trainer.
“We have a rich history of working with the 711th and studying hypoxia and the effects of just that on our fliers in general,” said Cmdr. Michael Lowe, deputy director of Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton.
NAMRU-D expects to aid in the investigation of the F-35 life support and on-board oxygen generation systems within two years, according to Navy Capt. Richard Folga, part of a joint aeromedical working group.
The Marines fly the F-35B, a vertical take-off and landing variant, and the Navy plans to fly the F-35C, a carrier-based version, beginning in 2019. Foreign militaries also have purchased and fly the F-35 around the world.
Folga said the Navy lab analyzed data of F-22 hypoxia-like incidents to help the Air Force determine what happened on the front-line stealth fighter.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has given the Navy sensors to install aboard the F-18 and T-45 to analyze in real time the air quality pilots breathe at the moment they were exposed to it, Lowe said. Testing was expected to start next month.
AFRL “stepped in to really help us lay the groundwork for the next level of testing for those fleets,” he said.
The Navy continues to search for answers to the hypoxia-like issues, researchers said.
“Nothing has been ruled out right now,” Lowe said. “We’re still in the midst of testing.”
Boeing, prime contractor on the F-18 and T-45, is working closely with the Navy to identify the root cause of the problem and search for a solution, said company spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson.
“Crew safety is a top priority for us, and we’ll continue to be a proactive partner on the way forward,” she said in an email Tuesday.
Searching for clues
The F-35 has had a series of technical problems in the jet’s development. The Air Force, which plans to buy 1,763 of the planes to replace the F-16 and A-10, declared the stealth jet ready for combat last August.
F-35A flights were grounded for 11 days at Luke. Flights of the stealth fighter resumed in June under restricted altitude conditions, among other changes.
An F-35 Joint Program Office spokeswoman said in a statement to this newspaper OBOGS manufacturer Honeywell will design upgraded firmware, or computer software in the OBOGS system to regulate oxygen concentrations in the F-35. The change will be retrofitted into all variants of the stealth jet, according to Brandi Schiff, a JPO spokeswoman.
“Cost estimates are still being developed,” she added. “The current timeline is 24 months, but the F-35 Joint Program Office is pushing Lockheed Martin to accelerate the fielding of this new firmware.”
A Honeywell spokesman referred comments to Lockheed Martin. Lockheed, a member of the F-35 Joint Program Office “action team” investigating the issue, referred questions Tuesday to the Air Force.