US Navy Extends T-45 Grounding As Oxygen Problems Persist

(Source: U.S. Navy; issued April 9, 2017)

T-45 Goshawks from Naval Air Training Command. Student pilots fly the T-45s during Field Carrier Landing Practice before they head out to a carrier for their first aircraft deck landings. (US Navy photo)

SAN DIEGO --- Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, Commander, Naval Air Forces (CNAF), is visiting T-45C training commands across the fleet April 6 to April 8 to address recent concerns.

Shoemaker is visiting Naval Air Station (NAS) Kingsville, Texas, NAS Pensacola, Florida, and NAS Meridian, Mississippi, to talk face-to-face with instructor pilots (IPs) and student pilots about their physiological episodes (PEs) experienced in the cockpits of T-45C training aircraft. Shoemaker will listen to their concerns and communicate the ongoing efforts to tackle the problem.

On Friday, March 31, roughly 40 percent of flights in the T-45C training commands in Meridian, Pensacola and Kingsville were canceled because of the operational risk management (ORM) issues raised by local IPs.

"Our instructor pilots were implementing a risk management practice we require they do prior to all flights," Shoemaker explained. "It was important for me to come talk with my aviation team members and hear their concerns as we work this challenging issue together. We ask a lot of our pilots, and we owe it to them to ensure they understand we are doing everything we can to fix this problem and that they have access to top leadership."

"This will remain our top safety priority until we fully understand all causal factors and have eliminated PEs as a risk to our flight operations," Shoemaker continued. "The NAE [Naval Aviation Enterprise] has been directed to expedite solutions for PEs and to prioritize those efforts."

Engaging with aircrew face-to-face at their home stations is only the most recent in a series of activities undertaken by CNAF and the NAE to deal with PEs. Even before the concerns were raised by the pilots, CNATRA had scheduled expert engineers to visit the training sites and educate them on the ongoing efforts to fix the machines, and to enable the engineers to hear pilot feedback directly.

The Navy implemented an operational pause for its T-45C fleet Wednesday at the direction of Shoemaker in response to the T-45C pilots' feedback about the potential for PEs. That operational pause has been extended to allow Naval Aviation Leadership time to review the engineering data and developing a path forward for the fleet that will ensure the safety of its aircrew.

"We have the right team of NAVAIR [Naval Air Systems Command] program managers, engineers and maintenance experts in conjunction with Type Commander Staffs, medical and physiological experts immersed in this effort working with the same sense of urgency to determine the root causes of PEs," Shoemaker said." To tackle this as effectively as possible, we are using an 'unconstrained resources' approach to the problem, meaning we have not been nor will we be limited by money or manpower as we diligently work toward solutions."

As far back as 2010, NAVAIR established a Physiological Episode Team (PET) to collect data, investigate occurrences of PEs and coordinates with technical experts to identify and develop solutions based on root cause determinations. Naval Aviation has provided training and encouraged reporting of PEs since the development of the PET.

Finding the causes is a challenging problem on a complex, highly sophisticated platform. Though the number of components and configurations of the aircraft make finding "smoking guns" difficult, Naval Aviation has continued to implement multiple lines of effort across over the past couple years to mitigate the risks. Naval Aviation requires pilots train in the simulator using a Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device to improve aircrew recognition of physiological symptoms related to hypoxia.

The improved On-Board Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) material, known sieve bed (filter) material has been installed in all T-45, and new oxygen monitors are being fielded as part of an operational test in Pensacola. Sorbent tubes, devices that detect contaminants in breathing gas air, are also are being provided to pilots and, as soon as our inventory supports, will be required on every flight to help ensure we capture any PE event that might yield clues to the contamination agent.

Other mitigating efforts in place include: refinements to aircrew procedures; improved maintenance practices and procedures for better system reliability; releasing Air Frame Bulletin (AFB)-794, which changes inspection intervals to improve the rate of component failure detection; procurement of a cockpit pressurization warning system.

In one of his many previous messages to the Force, Shoemaker explained that, "Our aviators must be able to operate with confidence in our platforms and in their ability to safely execute their mission. To help ensure we eliminate this risk, collection and reporting of event data and your continued leadership is critical."

(ends)

(Source: U.S. Navy; issued April 9, 2017)

By Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, Commander, Naval Air Forces

I continue to be impressed by the young men and women in Naval Aviation. Over the last two days, I have visited and talked extensively with the instructor pilots, students and staffs from our T-45C Training Wings at Naval Air Station (NAS) Meridian, NAS Kingsville and NAS Pensacola. They raised concerns about safety and the risks associated with physiological episodes (PEs) being caused by the oxygen breathing system in the T-45C.

It was important for me to hear directly from the pilots and share with them all the ongoing efforts to tackle this problem. I have been tracking these events in both the T-45 and F/A-18 fleets, but a recent spike in T-45 events was cause for the Operational Risk Management (ORM) pause the pilots initiated and my directed operational pause that followed.

Although we have taken an “unconstrained resources” approach to this problem, meaning we are dedicating our best people to find solutions and allocating necessary money toward mitigation measures despite current fiscal constraints, we are still seeing a rise in these events.

As I have shared before in messages to the force, I am fully prepared to limit or curtail flight operations if our fleet leadership team determines the risk to our aircrew cannot be mitigated to an acceptable level. After frank discussions with the aircrew, leadership staffs and engineers, I will extend the operational pause for at least a week to allow time for our engineers to do a deeper dive into T-45 systems and for leadership to determine additional mitigation measures that will reduce the risks associated with the T-45 oxygen breathing system.

We are seeking input from the pilots and they have shared some innovative ideas that we are evaluating as possible paths forward as we continue to identify the root causes of the PEs. During the calls, I reinforced the importance of the ORM process, and acknowledged the instructors’ concerns and the use of that tool as the mechanism for last Friday’s pause.

As we eventually get back to flying I expect the same, deliberate and well-established ORM process to continue to be used as an assessment of readiness for flying. And we will respect and honor those requests, as we have always done as part of our safety culture. Communication up and down the chain is critical to successful execution of any mission and this last few days of engagement identified some areas we can work on to improve our communications.

As I have said before, the greatness of Naval Aviation is not measured by the capability of the aircraft in our inventory. Rather, our Navy owes its stellar reputation around the world to the hardworking, dedicated professionals on our Naval Aviation teams who bring our squadrons to life. I am awed by their commitment to the mission and the extraordinary work they do every day.

-ends-

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