US Air Force resumes F-35A flights despite not knowing why pilot oxygen systems failed

Take a deep breath. You might have to hold it for a while

The US Air Force has today restarted flights of F-35As that were grounded by oxygen supply problems, even as it admits that it still doesn’t know what caused the life support systems to malfunction.

The USAF’s 56th Fighter Wing, based at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, grounded their aircraft last week after five pilots reported experiencing symptoms of hypoxia – lack of oxygen – while airborne.

In all cases the pilots of the single-crewed fighter jets were able to continue flying by using their backup systems, before landing.

“No specific root cause for the physiological events was identified during recent visits from experts,” said the USAF in a statement.

Some measures are being taken to reduce the likelihood of the hypoxia incidents recurring, including: pilots being instructed to avoid the specific altitudes where their comrades ran short of breathable air; increased minimum levels for backup oxygen systems being provided for each flight; and allowing pilots to wear extra sensors during flight to collect data that might help identify the root cause of the hypoxia events.

“Our active duty, reserve, and international team has worked tirelessly to better understand the physiological events,” said Brigadier Geneneral Brook Leonard, CO of the 56th. “This is a complex challenge that necessitates multidimensional solutions across a series of steps to get back to a full operating capability.

As the British F-35 testing contingent in America flies only F-35Bs, per the UK’s current intention to buy 138 of the jets, this temporary grounding did not affect them.

At the Paris International Air Show, the aviation industry’s answer to Mobile World Congress, Cebit and E3, Lockheed Martin displayed the F-35 without incident, focusing on a low-speed, high-manoeuvrability display intended to dazzle the world’s air forces into placing orders for the aircraft. A pile of “exclusive” rumours, definitely not planted by LM, have circulated over the last few days claiming that the company is about to sign a $37bn contract for 440 F-35s.

Blighty has already inked its purchase orders for comparatively tiny numbers of low-rate initial production aircraft, with the Ministry of Defence holding off on a full order until LM goes into full rate commercial production rather than the drip-feed necessary for testing and integration of new design features.

It is still unknown whether the UK’s F-35 fleet will consist entirely of the vertical takeoff B model or whether, as defence minister Harriett Baldwin indicated last summer, we might buy conventional F-35As on top of the carrier-capable fleet. ®

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