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Military Capabilities

UK reveals extent of hypoxia incidents for combat pilots

02 March 2018

UK combat pilots have suffered from hypoxia-related incidents on a small number of occasions in the last five years, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) disclosed on 1 March.

An RAF Tornado pilot prepares to embark on a mission. The UK MoD has disclosed that Tornado and Typhoon crews have reported "less than five" cases of hypoxia in the last five years. (Crown Copyright)An RAF Tornado pilot prepares to embark on a mission. The UK MoD has disclosed that Tornado and Typhoon crews have reported "less than five" cases of hypoxia in the last five years. (Crown Copyright)

Answering questions in parliament, armed forces minister Tobias Ellwood said Royal Air Force (RAF) personnel flying the Panavia Tornado GR4 and Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 platforms had reported hypoxia on “less than five” occasions between 2013 and 2016 inclusive, while there had been no reported instances in 2017. The MoD did not break this number down between the two aircraft types.

While the number of incidents affecting UK crews is relatively low, they come on the back of an apparent spike in such instances being reported across a number of aircraft types by foreign air arms in general, and by the United States military in particular.

Hypoxia – the lack of oxygen flowing to the brain – is one of several physiological events that fast jet pilots have been increasingly reporting during the last few years, with others including hypocapnia (reduced carbon dioxide in the blood), hypercapnia (elevated carbon dioxide in the blood), and spatial disorientation.

For the US Air Force, these events have over recent weeks and months included oxygen deprivation problems with Beechcraft T-6A Texan II trainer aircraft flying out of Vance Air Force Base (AFB) in Oklahoma (but, oddly, not the same type flying out of other locations), the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters (curiously only affecting USAF aircraft and pilots), Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, Boeing F-15 Eagle, and Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. USAF Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor fighters were affected by a similar issue in 2011.

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