Did Donald Trump Just Save the F-15 (and Bail Out Boeing)?

April 29th, 2018 - by admin

Dave Majumdar / The National Interest & Mark Thompson / The Project on Government Oversight – 2018-04-29 00:13:49


Did Donald Trump Save the F-15 and F/A-18 (and Boeing)?
Dave Majumdar / The National Interest

(April 28, 2018) — Did Donald Trump Save the F-15 and F/A-18 (and Boeing)?

The Trump Administration’s rise to power has proven to be a boon for Boeing’s fighter programs.

In previous years, both the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15 Eagle production lines were expected to shut down as Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter looked set to dominate the fighter market both domestically and internationally. However, with domestic defense funding boosted and new overseas sales, the future looks brighter for both jets.

“I think after several years of having to endure the damage of sequestration and a challenging defense budget, we’re now seeing reemerging strength of that budget supported by both parties, and we’re encouraged by the future year plans that we’ve seen,” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s chairman, president and Chief Executive Officer, told investors. “And that is something that has bolstered our expectations for our defense business going forward.”

The Trump Administration’s largesse has been particularly helpful for Boeing’s St Louis, Missouri, operations. “Now in particular to St. Louis, the support for individual programs there has been strong both domestically and internationally,” Denis Muilenberg said.

“Our weapons business, which is based there, has been strong and we’re continuing to see growth there in a number of programs and our fighter business. And that includes F-15 international sales as well as upgrades to the F-15 fleet domestically. And perhaps most encouragingly is the progress we’re seeing on the F-18 Super Hornet line. And I think it’s a testament to the quality of the product.”

Indeed, with the US.Navy’s decision to buy new Block III Super Hornets and refurbish older aircraft, the F/A-18E/F production line has seen a renaissance. “You can hear our customers are very supportive.

The US Navy and what that airplane is doing for them every day in the fleet is important,” Muilenberg said. “And we have a great program that’s producing capability that our customers need. And we’re looking forward to continuing to grow that program going forward.”

That is a turnaround from only a few years ago when it was expected that the Super Hornet production line would be shut down. “A couple years ago, we had some questions about that production line,” Muilenberg said.

“We can now see both the F-18 and the F-15 production lines extending far into next decade. And one good example of that is in the five-year future defense plan. We see a Navy request now for 110 new Super Hornets as well as the Service Life Extension Program for the existing Super Hornet fleet. So we’re bullish about the fighter lines for the future.”

Thus, Boeing will survive long enough as a combat aircraft manufacturer to compete on the Navy and Air Force’s next generation fighter programs that are just starting to get underway.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

The Fatal Flaw That Could
Take Down an F-22 or F-35

Mark Thompson / The Project on Government Oversight

(March 14, 2018) — An ancient Greek tale says that Icarus drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after he ignored his father’s advice to fly low to avoid the sun’s warmth during their attempted escape from the isle of Crete. He chose instead to soar upward on his man-made wings, where the sun melted the wax binding his feathers to his body and sent him plunging to his death. But it wasn’t so much heat, as hubris, that doomed him.

Adventurers have been trying to cheat the heavens ever since. And, as was the case with Icarus, aviation’s weak link is often the human at the helm.

“Flying headlong into the ground is the single biggest killer of fighter pilots in the Air Force,” Air Force Magazine reported two years ago. “The phenomenon known as Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) is responsible for 75 percent of F-16 pilot fatalities and is often due to disorientation or loss of consciousness while maneuvering at low altitude.”

Of course, it’s part of the military’s DNA to, ahem, push the envelope. For pilots, that can mean flying longer missions from more austere bases — even if the cost isn’t worth it, and the need to do it is vanishingly tiny. But it’s that quest that has brought us OBOGS and its dangerous complications.

The systems, developed in the 1980s and now common on military aircraft, suck in thin air from the engine intakes. Then they purify, cool and concentrate it into a 95 percent oxygen gas to keep pilots alive and alert.

The system replaces traditional liquid oxygen systems, which limited a pilot’s flight time, especially a problem in planes that can be refueled in midair. Such liquid systems also can’t always be resupplied at the primitive forward air bases the military says it may need to fly from in the next war, but hardly ever does.

Pilots of at least six different kinds of OBOGS-outfitted military aircraft have had trouble breathing in recent years. They range from hot planes like the Air Force’s F-35As, F-22s and A-10s, and the Navy and Marines’ F-18s, to the more modest Navy T-45 Goshawk and Air Force T-6 Texan trainers.

These so-called “physiological events” generally involve pilot impairment triggered by a lack of oxygen — hypoxia — that can quickly turn deadly because of the resulting dizziness, disorientation, decompression, numbness and pain.

Most frustrating for all involved, the services have been unable to pinpoint the root of the problems. So they have been forced to rely on tweaking the systems, modifying their software, beefing up training, and crossing their fingers.

Both Air Force and Navy pilots have refused to fly airplanes they deemed to be outfitted with faulty OBOGS. Military officers — trained from Day One to follow orders — don’t take such steps lightly.

What’s amazing about it is that military leaders, who are forever insisting the safety of their troops is one of their most sacred responsibilities, are having to be pushed to take action by their subordinates who fear for their lives.

Air Force Capt. Jeffrey Haney was killed in 2010 when his F-22 flew into the ground after he lost oxygen. While the Air Force grounded the fleet following the crash, it sent its prized fighter back into the skies after it concluded Haney was to blame for his own death (although it grounded them again a month later for the same issue).

A pair of F-22 Air National Guard pilots made headlines in 2012 when they told CBS’s 60 Minutes that they were too scared to fly because of what they felt was its sketchy oxygen supply (the case also highlighted the skimpy protection afforded such life-or-death whistleblowers).

Pilots flying the Air Force’s newest fighter, the F-35, have had 29 hypoxia-like cases. After a spate of five incidents at an Arizona base last spring, the service ordered an 11-day grounding. The Air Force said that the light warning of an OBOGS problem inside the F-35’s cockpit had been too sensitive and illuminating too often, making pilots anxious.

Since a lack of oxygen shares symptoms with anxiety, it is especially difficult to tell them apart with a malfunctioning warning light. F-35 pilots had also been spending too much time sitting still on the tarmac during the summer with their engines running, spewing carbon monoxide that might pollute the breathing system, the service said.

The Air Force also grounded 28 A-10 attack planes for a week last November after three pilots had trouble breathing, two while using OBOGS. The other A-10 was using an older liquid-oxygen system, which the service is replacing with OBOGS.

“The OBOGS mitigates the constraints of liquid oxygen by utilizing engine bleed air as the source of breathing oxygen and eliminates the maintenance costs and sortie delays the liquid oxygen system incurs,” the service says.

The Air Force isn’t the only service gasping for air. Breathing problems aboard the Navy’s main fighter, the F-18, spiked from 57 in 2012 to 125 in 2016. The breathing gear on the Navy’s F-18s and T-45s “is inadequate to consistently provide high quality breathing air,” the Navy itself concluded last June. “The net result is contaminants can enter aircrew breathing air provided by OBOGS and potentially induce hypoxia.”

The Navy flubbed its probe into a series of F-18 oxygen-related crashes that killed four pilots, a Navy-commissioned NASA report, ordered by Congress, concluded in September.

Last spring, the Navy was forced to ground its T-45 trainers after more than 100 instructor pilots refused to fly them because of concerns about their oxygen supply. “The pilots don’t feel safe flying this aircraft,” one instructor pilot told Fox News at the time.

The most recent OBOGS snafu involves the Air Force’s propeller-driven T-6 Texan trainer. The service grounded the plane for most of February after its pilots experienced a rash of breathing problems. But the service concluded they did not suffer from “classic hypoxia” but rather “unexplained physiological events” that could have been caused by too much oxygen, contaminated oxygen, or something else entirely.

“After listening to pilots, maintainers, engineers and flight surgeons, it became apparent the T-6 fleet was exhibiting symptoms indicative of a compromise of the integrity of the OBOGS, leading to degradations in performance, which then likely led to the pilots’ physiological events,” the Air Force said Feb. 27.

“We have zeroed in on a handful of components that are degrading or failing to perform and needed to be replaced or repaired more often than the Air Force anticipated when they bought the aircraft,” Maj. Gen. Patrick Doherty said when he lifted the grounding order.

As congressional heat — not unlike that of the sun — has increased, the Air Force responded in January like the military often does: by appointing an Air Force blue ribbon panel — the aptly-named Unexplained Physiologic Events Integration Team — to try to figure out what is going on.

The Navy created its own Physiological Episode Action Team last April. (In typical Pentagon fashion, each service came up with a unique label — “Physiologic Event” and “Physiological Episode” — for their common problem.)

“There is no single root cause tied to a manufacturing or design defect that would explain multiple physiologic event incidents across airframes or within a specific airframe,” Lieut. Gen. Mark Nowland, an Air Force deputy chief of staff, told the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical aviation subcommittee Feb. 6. “Some events are due to issues outside the aircraft or equipment, and some physiologic events remain unexplained and cannot be replicated.”

Congress wasn’t buying it. “I could not be more disappointed by your presentation,” Rep. Michael Turner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the panel, told Nowland. “There is something wrong with the systems that these pilots are relying on for their lives.”

Turner derided the service’s emphasis on more training. “Should we start doing hearing training, where we ask you to come before us and then let’s have you hold your breath for a minute in the first hearing, and then in the second hearing we’ll have you hold your breath for two minutes?” Turner asked. “It makes no sense.”

The Navy didn’t escape criticism. “Although the Navy has put significant effort into investigating the physiologic episodes, the bulk of their efforts to date have been directed to the aircraft rather than human physiology,” NASA engineer Clinton Cragg told the subcommittee.

OBOGS require “uniform operating conditions” that a supersonic and highly-maneuverable jet “rarely provides,” he added. The service has focused too much on looking for a mechanical fix for a human problem.

“There has been a breakdown of trust in leadership within the pilot community,” NASA saidin its September report directed by Cragg. “This has been precipitated by the failure to find a definitive cause for the [Physiological Episodes], the implementation of ‘fixes’ that do not appear to work . . . and the belief that Navy leadership is not doing enough to resolve the issue.”

None of this is to argue against cutting-edge military technology. But it should serve as a wakeup call that some nascent technologies aren’t ready for prime time, and shouldn’t be used to turn the U.S. military’s highly-trained pilots (it costs $11 million to train a fighter-jet jockey) into guinea pigs.

You’d be forgiven for thinking OBOGS are ideal if you only relied on the folks who build them. The systems generate “an unlimited supply of pilot breathing gas” and permit “the aircraft to be forward deployed during combat/other missions,” Honeywell, a leading maker, raves.

Not only that: its design means “the pilot is not susceptible to smoke and fumes from the cockpit” and produces life-giving air that is “free from contamination.”

The available evidence suggests otherwise. Of course, when pulling Gs at 30,000 feet, the line between breathing and hubris can get pretty thin.

This article originally appeared on the Project on Government Oversight.

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