Navy investigating rise of health issues among fighter jet pilots

Navy investigating rise of health issues among fighter jet pilots
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The Navy is investigating a rise in health issues among pilots of its fleet of F/A-18 and EA-18G fighter jets, the chairman of a House Armed Services Committee subpanel said Thursday.

“We’ve been informed that the Navy has organized a Physiological Episode Team, to investigate and determine the causes of these physiological episodes in aviators,” Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, said at a hearing Thursday. “As symptoms related to depressurization, tissue hypoxia and contaminant intoxication overlap, discerning a root cause is a complex process.”

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The Navy started noticing a rise in physiological episodes among pilots in 2009, Turner said.

In 2006, the rate of episodes per 100,000 flight hours on the F/A-18 was 3.66, according to written testimony from Navy and Marines leaders.

By the period from Nov. 1, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2015, the rate was 28.23, according to the testimony.

For the EA-18G, the rate was 5.52 from Nov. 1, 2010, to Oct. 31, 2011. From Nov. 1, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2015, it was 43.57.

“While episodes of decompression sickness typically accompany a noticeable loss of cabin pressure by the aircrew, the cause of most physiological episodes is not readily apparent during flight,” the testimony says. “Reconstruction of the flight event is difficult with potential causal factors not always readily apparent during post-flight debrief and examination.”

The testimony was written by Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation; Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director of the Air Warfare Division of the Navy; and Rear Adm. Michael Moran, program executive officer of tactical aircraft of the Navy.

Of the 273 cases adjudicated so far by the investigation team, 93 involved some form of contamination, 90 involved an environmental control systems (ECS) component failure, 67 involved human factors, 41 involved an on-board oxygen generating system (OBOGS) component failure, 11 involved a breathing gas delivery component failure, and 45 were inconclusive or involved another system failure.

In response to the episodes, the Navy has put in place mandatory cabin pressurization testing, environmental control systems pressure port testing and annual hypoxia awareness training for pilots, among other steps.

“Many other solutions are in the process of being fielded or under development as well,” the testimony says. “Future projects include technology to collect better sample data throughout the ECS and OBOGS, increased capacity for the emergency oxygen bottles, and physiological detection of symptoms.”