Reports of In-Flight Problems May Stem from Cultural Change: Navy

An F/A-18 Hornet completes a catapult launch from the deck of the carrier George H.W. Bush in the Middle East. Twice since the carrier deployed in January, pilots have experienced hypoxia-like episodes in the cockpit. Hope Hodge Seck/ For Navy aviation, a resurgence of hypoxia-like episodes in fighter aircraft has made for a difficult year — a fact underscored in July when an F/A-18 Hornet squadron deployed aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush in support of the fight against ISIS paused operations for a full week after pilots experienced problems on back-to-back days.

But that step, a dramatic response to what the Navy has called its No. 1 aviation concern, may also be a sign of positive cultural change, said Capt. Dave "DW" Kindley, manager for the F/A-18 Hornet and EA-18G Growler program office.

During an interview at the Pentagon regarding the service’s effort to solve what it calls "physiological episodes," Kindley praised the leadership aboard the carrier who grounded Strike Fighter Squadron 37 even in a busy operational environment.

"This is a CO who sees something he’s uncomfortable with, and he stepped forward and said, ‘We need to stop and look at our aircraft,’ " Kindley said. "Wow, that’s a good thing that that guy can jump forward and say that, and the naval aviation enterprise came and said, ‘Right, we back you 100 percent.’ "

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The head of the Navy’s new Physiological Episode Action Team, Capt. Sara "Clutch" Joyner, emphasized that fighter pilots have been experiencing cockpit episodes for decades, but may have faced pressure in the past to say nothing and deal with them privately.

"[A] fighter pilot came up to me, from the ’80s, and said, ‘I had a physiological episode, and I wouldn’t have told anybody that I had it,’ " she said. "And he was disoriented, his whole crew helped him land the aircraft at the time, and they didn’t tell anybody. That was just not something you did."

For the Navy, a more open cultural environment may help explain troubling increases in hypoxia-like incidents and other physiological episodes that affect its Hornets and Growlers, as well as its T-45C Goshawk trainers.

According to data published by the Navy in June, incidents involving Hornets and Growlers soared to a 25-year high in 2016, with 125 reported episodes. In 2015, there were 89 incidents, and just 56 in 2014.

As of June, there had already been 52 incidents this year, according to the data.

For T-45s, 2016 also represented an all-time high, with 38 cockpit incidents reported, compared to 27 in 2015 and just 12 in 2014.

As of June, there had been 21 incidents reported before the Goshawk fleet paused operations in April due to the surge in physiological episodes. There have been at least four since training flights resumed in August.

For the legacy Hornet, which entered service in the early 1980s and is rapidly approaching retirement, age is another key factor in play."The airframes are aging and changing in ways that maybe are not within the boundaries of what […]