October 13, 2018:
The U.S. Air Force believes it has found the cause and solution for the oxygen supply problems it was having with its T-6 trainer aircraft. It turned out to be multiple causes. The most obvious ones were malfunctions with some mechanical components wearing out and failing more rapidly than anticipated. Maintenance personnel noted this when they checked the repair records for T-6s with oxygen supply issues. Another problem was the software used to control the amount of oxygen provided to the pilots. Not only did this software provide too little but sometimes too much oxygen, which can also disable or disorient pilots. In the course of a six-month study of the T-6 oxygen supply problems it was also discovered that the mental state of the pilots also had an impact, especially when the oxygen supply problems were marginal (did not disable most pilots). Finally, the cause of the T-6 problems turned out to be the key to solving similar problems with many air force and navy combat aircraft.
The Air Force has embarked on a program to modify oxygen supply hardware and software as needed for each type of aircraft having the air supply problems. After each modification, there would be a period of monitoring performance to ensure the problem was fixed. In the meantime, the more serious issues will be addressed immediately with increased maintenance (checking high-risk components) and minor tweaks to software as well as providing pilots with guidelines on how to detect problems as they develop but before they become disabling. It could take up to four years to complete this effort because it won’t just be applied to the T-6 but to other aircraft with similar equipment and problems. This might finally deal with oxygen supply problems that have been showing up with increasing frequency since 2002.
The T-6 problems began showing up in late 2017 and the air force temporarily grounded a hundred of its T-6 trainers after at least five incidents where personnel in the T-6 (four instructors and one student) reported problems with their air supply. This happened during a two week period and in all five cases the backup oxygen supply was activated and all aircraft were able to land safely. Air Force pilot trainees spend about 90 flight hours in the two-seat T-6A and problems with the air supply does not inspire confidence. The air force is checking the primary pilot oxygen system, which uses an OBOG (OnBoard Oxygen Generating) unit.
Back in the 1990s, the T-6A was selected by the U.S. Air Force as the replacement for the half century old T-37Bs (which were basically worn out). This was because the T-6A design is based on the very popular Pilatus PC-9, which already had an excellent reputation as a trainer aircraft. A single-engine prop driven aircraft, the T-6 reduces fuel costs by over 60 percent (compared to the T-37B). The three ton T-6As cost about $8 million each.
Since it entered service in 2001 nearly 900 T-6s have been delivered or are on order and they are essential for providing basic flight training for all air force pilots. The U.S. Air Force began using the T-6A in 2008 but the air supply problem is rather recent and that is also being investigated. Because the T-6 oxygen supply problems continued into early 2018 there were several more groundings or limiting how high (not over 4,000 meters) the aircraft could fly. As a result of all the restrictions, the air force expects to get ten percent few pilots trained in 2018. There should be no such losses in 2019.
Meanwhile the Air Force and navy are finding that similar issues are causing oxygen supply problems in other aircraft types. For example, in early May 2018 two carrier-based U.S. Navy F-18E fighters made an emergency landing in Turkey after pilots complained of air supply problems and showed symptoms of hypoxia (insufficient oxygen) All models of the F-18 have been suffering intermittent (and persistent) air supply problems and no single cause (or cure) has been found. Installing new air supply monitoring equipment and improved maintenance procedures seems to have helped but nothing has eliminated the problems. Worse, it was unclear, until the T-6 study, what was causing the persistent hypoxia incidents.
In May 2017 there were similar hypoxia problems with U.S. Air Force F-35A fighters at an Arizona air base. It all began in early May and by June 8th five F-35 pilots had reported signs of hypoxia and F-35As at the base were grounded for two weeks as the aircraft were checked out. Nothing definitive could be found and training flights were resumed, with altitude restrictions (stay under 4,000 meters) in late June. Still, nothing conclusive but a new set of safety checks was developed that could catch the problem before it occurred again. At the end of August, all restrictions on F-35A operations at the Arizona airbase were lifted.
There has been a lot of this sort of thing with several different types of aircraft developing mysterious problems with hypoxia. For example, earlier in 2017 there were hypoxia problems with U.S. Navy trainers and on April 5th the navy grounded all its T-45C jet trainers for three days to interview pilots and instructors about air supply problems. It turned out the problem was real and the trainers remained grounded until April 17th. But the aircraft resumed flying only after some changes were made to the pilot oxygen system to bypass the OBOG. This limited how high the aircraft could fly. The T-45s will fly at lower altitudes until the Navy can determine what was wrong with the OBOG or something else in the pilot air supply system. This restriction will prevent the T-45s from performing about a quarter of the training they normally provide but it averted a threatened pilot strike over the issue. The T-45 problems have yet to be diagnosed, understood and fixed. There have been some air supply issues with A-10s but not enough to limit operations. While the F-35 is the most recent jet fighter in American service the T-45 is a nine ton, single engine two seat aircraft that has been used since the early 1990s to train pilots who will eventually fly jet fighters.
OBOG problems are not new, nor are problems in general with oxygen systems. The U.S. Navy has had numerous such problems with its F-18s. There were 64 incidents in 2002-9, resulting in two dead pilots. The Navy found that the main problem was carbon monoxide getting sucked into the aircraft air system. The Navy modified the oxygen system, eliminating most of the problems. Similar failures continued with the major difficulty finding out exactly what was going on so it could be fixed.
After 2009 the Air Force looked into the Navy experience, to see if there was anything similar going on with the newly introduced F-22 stealth fighters. The air force looked into a lot of potential causes, without a lot of success. In 2012 the Air Force admitted that its rate of "pilot air supply" incidents for its 187 F-22 fighters has reached the rate of 26 per 100,000 flight hours. For most other aircraft, the rate is closer to 2-3 incidents per 100,000 hours.
All aircraft have occasional problems with their air supply but nothing like what the F-22 was going through. The Air Force woes began when it appeared that the F-22 might be having a problem with its OBOG system. OBOGs have been around since the 1950s but it’s only since the 1980s that OBOGs have become compact, cheap, and reliable enough to replace the older compressed gases or LOX (liquid oxygen) as a source of breathable air for high flying aircrew. Or so it was thought. Each aircraft, especially the F-22 and F-35, gets an OBOG tweaked for space, weight, or other conditions specific to that warplane design. It's this custom design that was also closely studied, to find out how the toxins got in. One recent solution is to constantly monitor the air quality and enable the OBOG to adjust its operation to cope or, failing that, alert the pilot. Another common feature of modern aircraft (and many other vehicles) is a performance monitor that notes and records certain performance data. Sort of a black box, but with a longer memory. These devices have been useful in diagnosing and fixing the hypoxia problems.
Another problem is that aircraft have been staying in the air longer (because of in-flight refueling) and carrying enough compressed oxygen became untenable, often making OBOGs mandatory to deal with that. Since the 1990s, most American military aircraft have replaced older oxygen systems with OBOGs. Most Western nations and Russia have followed, at least with their latest model aircraft. Most OBOG systems work by using a chemical reaction to remove carbon dioxide from the air taken into the OBOG and then sending out air with the proper amount of oxygen to the aircrew. The F-22, F-35. F-15E and many other modern aircraft were designed to fly long distances and spend long periods of time in the air. Thus an OBOG is mandatory. But OBOGs proved to be the culprit only part of the time and it has become quite a puzzle to unscramble these air supply problems that keep showing up. It seems to be an American thing because there have been far fewer hypoxia incidents in foreign (European, Russian, Chinese) made fighters. If the T-6 investigation and diagnoses turn out to be a general solution for all (or most) of the recent air supply problems it will be a major boost for pilot morale.