Pentagon lifts flight restrictions on F-22 fleet

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "approved the Air Force planned sequence of actions to remove [F-22] flight restrictions over time," DOD Press Secretary George Little told reporters at the Pentagon. "This process starts today." 

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Along with lifting flight restrictions, Little announced that Raptor squadron will be deployed to Kadena Air Force Base in Japan. 

"The deployment could occur at any moment," Little said. "The way the planes are going to fly will allow them to be near runways [along] the North Pacific transit route, which will allow the planes to be near land as they fly to Kadena."

Air Force officials have determined the main problem is with the oxygen delivery system aboard the Raptor. 

Service leaders have already begun to retrofit the F-22 fleet with the necessary equipment to implement the fix, Little said.  

In May, DOD places heavy flight restrictions on the F-22, pending an Air Force investigation into several incidents where Raptor pilots suffered from oxygen deprivation during operations. 

The decision came after a seven-month Air Force investigation was unable to identify the root cause for the oxygen deprivation cases aboard the F-22. 

From April 2008 to May 2010, 14 "psychological incidents" occurred among Air Force pilots flying the F-22 Raptor jet, according to retired Gen. Gregory Martin, who led the service inquiry into the incidents. 

Those incidents, which ranged from severe bouts of dizziness to pilots blacking out, prompted the Air Force to temporarily ground the entire Raptor fleet twice last year.

Even while under suspension, the incidents continued. 

In July, an F-22 pilot based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii signaled an "in-flight emergency" during a routine mission aboard the Raptor, which was believed to be caused by a lack of oxygen. 

A second incident occurred on May 31, when an F-22 crash-landed onto the runway at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., without deploying its landing gear — an error that could have been the result of the pilot suffering from oxygen deprivation. 

The inability for the Air Force to solve the problems aboard the Raptor drew fierce criticism from Congress. 

"I am not [quite] ready to come to that conclusion yet ... [but] my patience is wearing thin," Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told reporters in July, in response to a question on whether he or Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) planned to call Air Force leaders up to Capitol Hill to testify on the fighter's problems.

But Little said that DOD is now satisfied the Air Force has the issue under control and the fighter no longer poses a risk to service pilots. 

"I think we have very high confidence that we've identified the issue. It's going to take us a little while to ensure that all the relevant components are replaced and that the equipment issue [will] be resolved," he said. 

"We have high confidence at this stage that that could be done," Little added.