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F-22 pilots who talked to '60 Minutes' protected as whistle-blowers

After two Air Force pilots came forward to say they didn’t feel safe flying F-22 fighters because of reports of hypoxia-like symptoms, Lt. Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger issued a stern hands-off warning, according to the Air Force Times.

Wolfenbarger, the military deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said the pilots who refused to fly the F-22s, Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Josh Wilson, are considered whistle-blowers protected by the federal whistle-blower act.

Gordon and Wilson appeared on the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” saying they don’t feel safe in the jet.

The Air Force grounded the F-22 from May to September last year. Before the grounding, there had been at least 12 separate reports of hypoxia-like symptoms, and planes had been limited to flying at lower altitudes.

In November of 2010, Capt. Jeffrey Haney of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson died in a crash after he apparently lost control of the plane when the oxygen system malfunctioned. The Air Force’s official report on the incident acknowledges the oxygen system failure but blamed the pilot’s response for the crash. Haney was on a training mission northeast of the Interior Alaska town of Cantwell when his plane dropped below radar and crashed.

The crash and other incidents grounded the entire U.S. fleet of $400 million aircraft for four months while the Air Force looked for the cause of the problem. After the jets returned to service in September, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson briefly grounded its fleet again in late October over continuing concerns about pilot oxygen supplies.

Wolfenbarger is the first woman confirmed as a four-star general in the Air Force. She believes investigators are closing in on answers.

“With recent data, we believe we are coming to closure on that root cause,” she said. “But, that doesn’t mean we are done with all the activities to find that root cause.”