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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Super Hornets Facing Oxygen Problems

By: Lee Berthiaume, National Post 

OTTAWA — The U.S. Navy is struggling with an increase in the number of pilots reporting oxygen problems while flying Super Hornets — the same fighter jet the Liberal government is considering instead of the F-35.

The problem has become so severe that a U.S. Navy spokesman said it is the force’s top safety priority. However, while a special team has been created to fix the issue, Ensign Marc Rockwellpate said finding the “root causes” has “proven to be challenging.”

A US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter lands on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan.
A US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter lands on the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan. Kim Hong-Ji/AFP/Getty Images
The revelation, which comes weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the F-35 “does not work,” will only add more fuel to the fire as the Liberals grapple with replacing Canada’s venerable CF-18 fighter jets.

The Liberals promised during last year’s election that they would hold a competition for new jets, but not buy the F-35. Now they say new jets are urgently needed, and while no decision has been made, sources told Postmedia this month that the Liberals were leaning toward buying Super Hornets without a competition.


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The severity of the Super Hornet’s problems with oxygen loss and depressurization first came to light in February, when a U.S. congressional subcommittee raised the issue. The U.S. military has since revealed that there have been dozens of so-called “physiological episodes” since 2010 — with the rate increasing in recent years.

The issue has afflicted the U.S. Navy’s Super Hornets and older F-18 Hornets, which are similar to Canada’s CF-18s, at an almost equal rate. While it’s believed the problem on the older planes relates to their advanced age, the issue with the newer Super Hornets is believed to be their onboard oxygen system.

Testifying before the congressional subcommittee in February, Rear-Admiral Michael Manazir said trying to pinpoint the exact the source of the problem in the oxygen system was like “chasing a ghost.”

“We can’t figure out … whether there was a smaller oxygen content than we needed or a carbon monoxide event or poison in the gas (or) something that came off of a bearing so you’re breathing toxic air.”

Symptoms associated with hypoxia, or loss of oxygen to the body’s tissues, come on gradually in pilots. Rather than passing out right away, pilots will often feel dizzy or confused at first, as if they are drunk, before losing consciousness. This has raised fears of pilots not recognizing signs of hypoxia until it’s too late.

While U.S. military officials say they are determined to deal with the issue, they say there has not been any crash or fatality because of so-called “physiological effects” since 2011. The problem is also not considered serious enough to ground the U.S. Navy’s fleet.

However, a recent article in the Navy Times, which reports on the U.S. Navy, said U.S. military personnel are worried about the growing number of incidents. The article also attributed at least 15 deaths in the past 20 years to oxygen loss and decompression sickness.

A spokeswoman for U.S. aerospace giant Boeing Co., which builds the Super Hornet and has been lobbying the Liberal government to buy the plane, confirmed the oxygen problem this week. Rebecca Yeamans told the Citizen it was a “complex issue,” and that Boeing has been working with the U.S. Navy to address it.

The Super Hornet isn’t the only aircraft to have problems with oxygen loss and decompression. The U.S. military has had similar issues with its F-22 fighter jet, which is built by F-35 maker Lockheed Martin. However, there have not been any reports of problems on the type of F-35 that Canada would buy.

The F-35 nonetheless has had its own share of unresolved technical issues. The U.S. Air Force said last fall that there was a risk the stealth fighter’s heavy helmet could cause neck damage to pilots weighing less than 165 pounds, or 75 kilograms, if they are forced to eject.

A report from Congress’s budget watchdog in March also said about 20 per cent of development testing remains to be done on the F-35, “including complex mission systems software testing, which will be challenging.” The work is expected to cost an additional $3 billion over six years.

There have long been suspicions that the Liberals have wanted to buy the Super Hornet. Aside from ruling out the F-35 during the election, officials have indicated that Canada all but has to buy an American-built plane, given the importance of joint continental defence with the U.S.

That would leave the Super Hornet as the preferred alternative, given that the F-35’s other competitors — the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab Gripen — are all European.

The previous Conservative government announced in 2010 that Canada would be buying 65 F-35s, with the first to be delivered in 2015. But it pushed the reset button in 2012 after the auditor general raised questions about the program, and National Defence revealed the jets would cost $46 billion over their lifetimes.

lberthiaume@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/leeberthiaume