Tuesday, December 20, 2016

US Navy Grounds all F/A-18 Super Hornets

By: David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen 

The U.S. Navy temporarily grounded all its Super Hornet fighter jets — the same type of plane Canada intends to purchase — after aircrew were injured in an incident last week.

A pilot and an electronic warfare officer were taken to hospital Friday after something went wrong with the canopy of their jet just before it was to take off from the naval station at Whidbey Island, Wash., some 220 kilometres south of Vancouver.

The two-seater aircraft involved was an E/A-18G, an electronic warfare plane that is a variant of the Super Hornet.

The U.S. Navy is not releasing details about the incident, but as a safety precaution it suspended flight operations for its Boeing Super Hornets and for its Boeing EA-18/G Growler jets, which are a variant of the Super Hornet.

The Liberal government intends to buy 18 of the Super Hornets as what they describe as a stop-gap measure to augment Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets, a measure defence minister Harjit Sajjan says is needed so Canada can fulfill its various military obligations. A competition to replace the entire CF-18 fleet will be held years later.

A search-and-resuce helicopter airlifted the pilot and the electronic warfare officer to Seattle on Friday, where they were admitted to hospital.

“We are working closely with the Navy to assist in the investigation, and our thoughts are with the aircrew and their families,” Boeing said in a statement Monday.

On Monday the U.S. Navy issued a directive that the planes have now been approved for future flight operations once individual squadrons put in place new safety and emergency measures. Some media reports, citing the navy’s safety centre, noted the closed canopy of the aircraft “exploded on flight line during normal operations.”

An investigation into the incident identified a number of different issues that likely contributed to the accident, the navy stated, but it did not provide details.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan has questioned the Super Hornet deal and the Liberal government’s claim the CF-18s need urgently to be replaced, pointing out they can operate effectively until 2025. The “Liberal suggestions that our fighters are literally on their last legs is patently false,” he added.

In June, Postmedia reported that the U.S. Navy was also trying to deal with an increase in the number of pilots reporting oxygen problems while flying Super Hornets. The problem has become so severe that a U.S. navy spokesman said it is the force’s top safety priority.

The problems with oxygen loss and depressurization, which 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 “physiological episodes” since 2010 — with the rate increasing in recent years.

The issue has afflicted the U.S. Navy’s Super Hornets and its 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 with 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. Rather than passing out right away, pilots will often feel dizzy or confused at first, as if they are drunk, before losing consciousness. That has raised fears that pilots might not recognize signs of hypoxia until it’s too late.