Faulty oxygen systems on Navy FA-18 fighter jets have been linked to four fatal accidents, according to a redacted U.S. Navy review released on Thursday, June 16. The review was of onboard oxygen system problems spurred by a number of hypoxia incidents that have grounded training flights for more than a month.
The report attributes a surge in reports of “physiological incidents” from FA-18 and T-45 trainer jet crews beginning in 2010 to faulty onboard oxygen generation systems on the aircraft and improvements in awareness and reporting mechanisms for the increase in reports of hypoxia, a sometimes fatal condition resulting from lack of oxygen in the body, and related illnesses. The report said:
The integration of the on-board oxygen generation system (OBOGS) in the T-45 and FA-18 is inadequate to consistently provide high quality breathing air. To varying degrees, neither aircraft is equipped to continuously provide clean, dry air to OBOGS – a design specification for the device. The net result is contaminants can enter aircrew breathing air provided by OBOGS and potentially induce hypoxia.
The specific causes and dates of the four fatal incidents, and a fifth where a FA-18 pilot survived after ditching the aircraft, are redacted. But the report notes that “correct application of emergency oxygen” probably would have saved the aircraft and their crews.
The report comes after the surge in reported incidents culminated in a refusal by flight instructors at three separate bases to accompany students on T-45 flights over safety concerns. The Navy has since grounded all training flights and limited conditions under which trainers can fly the T-45 jets.
Reports of incidents on FA-18s before 2010 peaked at 17. In 2010 the number rose to 28 and has risen every year since except 2014, reaching 125 last year. Reports of physiological episodes on T-45s rose from just five in 2011 to 38 last year, with 21 already reported in 2017.
According to the report, an aircrew had to eject from a T-45 in 2016, and the Navy’s response helped shake confidence in both the jets and the Navy leadership’s response to the problem. Although the cause of the incident is redacted, the report states that the aircrew disputed the initial conclusions of the Navy’s investigation.
The top admiral for naval aviation, Vice Adm. Paul A. Grosklags, told the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower on June 13 that the Navy has been “tearing apart” jets in an effort to pinpoint the cause of the oxygen system failures. While specific causes of the physiological episodes have yet to be identified, the report lists a number of potentially concerning issues with the oxygen systems, including use of components that are not designed to withstand extreme temperature fluctuations and components beyond their intended lifespans.
Among the review’s recommendations are a redesign of the systems on the aircraft to overcome design shortcomings and establishment of a dedicated organization to oversee efforts to reduce the number of physiological incidents on Navy and Marine flights.
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