NORFOLK, Va. - People who live near F-22 bases should not see significant changes in how or where the aircraft are flying following new restrictions put in place while military officials examine what's causing oxygen-deficit problems with the stealth fighters, the Air Force said Thursday.
Guidance on how far away from bases the jets can fly will go out to F-22 units over the next several days, officials at Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the restrictions Tuesday as the Air Force attempts to figure out what's causing pilots in the world's most advanced fighter jet to experience dizziness and other symptoms of oxygen shortages while flying. The Air Force grounded the jets, which have never flown a combat mission, for four months last year while it tried to pinpoint the problem. The planes started flying again in September but the hypoxia-like symptoms in pilots continued.
Some of the nation's 200 F-22 pilots have refused to fly the plane as a result and the issue has drawn scrutiny from members of Congress concerned about pilots' safety as well as the safety of communities near the bases, some of which are heavily-populated areas. In Virginia, residents are keenly aware of the dangers of malfunctioning planes following the crash of a Navy jet into a Virginia Beach apartment complex in April. The Navy is still investigating the cause of that crash.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said he's pleased with the restrictions Panetta has put in place on the F-22s and applauded the Air Force for requiring pilots to wear sensors and return to base if there are any indications of oxygen problems.
"This is not a long-term solution, but I think that combined with the fact that you're not going to have a pilot now an hour and a half away or an hour away from a landing strip are steps again in the right direction," Warner said in a telephone interview. "But we've got to figure this out. This is a plane that's essential to our long-term strategic interests, but it doesn't do a lot of good if you've got pilots that don't have confidence in it or are not able to function at the controls."
Air Combat Command, which oversees the F-22s, said the planes will stay in "close proximity to military airfields," although it did not elaborate.
"In general, the guidance keeps training missions closer to their base of origin while providing the latitude necessary to give pilots a central role in the safe planning and execution of their assigned missions _ given both the unique characteristics of locations where we fly the F-22 as well as the different flight profiles required for different missions," Air Combat Command said in a separate statement. "Planning for a safe aircraft recovery includes a number of factors such as altitude, terrain, airspeed, fuel, proximity of adequate airfields, and capacity of the emergency oxygen supply."
As part of Panetta's order, long-distance air patrol missions in Alaska will be performed by other planes until normal operations resume once a backup oxygen system is installed or he agrees the F-22 can resume those flights.
The jets are stationed at six U.S. bases: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska: Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.; Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
F-22 pilots are trained at Tyndall. Flight testing is at Edwards Air force Base, Calif., and operational testing and tactics development is performed at Nellis.
Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)