HAMPTON -- For the first time, local Air Force leaders are talking about safety issues surrounding the F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
The entire fleet was grounded last year over a faulty on-board oxygen generator system that led to 11 unexplained cases of pilots suffering from hypoxia. Pilots reported light-headedness and inability to perform standard cockpit tasks. In one case in Alaska, an F-22 pilot died.
Investigators have not been able to get to the root of the problem.
Since last summer's stand-down, the Air Force has flown more than 12,000 sorties with the F-22 Raptor, accumulating 15,000 flight hours.
Monday, the Air Force said it's still unable to pinpoint the cause. They insist they're getting close and that in the meantime, the plane is safe to fly. However, a very small number of pilots have requested to not fly the jet.
'We are diligently pursuing a variety of hypotheses to try and understand and characterize the exact circumstances we've been experiencing,' stated General Mike Hostage with Air Combat Command.
An Air Force task force is studying the plane's life support system. They're looking at toxins that the system may be emitting, and they're looking at oxygen deprivation as the culprit. In the meantime, all 187 Raptors have been retrofitted with new emergency oxygen deployment handles. Air Force leaders say that although full flight schedules for the Raptor have resumed, the investigation continues and they won't rest until the mystery is resolved.
'I fully expect we'll get to a solution. I won't give you a time table, but we have made great progress to that effect and am confident we'll put this behind, we'll be able to explain it, and we'll re-tool the airplane to make this problem go away,' concluded Hostage.
General Hostage acknowledged that an undisclosed number of Raptors has now been deployed to southwest Asia. Previously the Raptor had flown primarily domestic homeland security missions.