CAFB pauses T-6 Texan II operations after reports of hypoxia

Staff Writer

More than half the normal flights at Columbus Air Force Base could be shut down by the grounding of the Air Force's T-6 Texan II training aircraft.

The 19th Air Force commander issued an operational pause, effective Feb. 1, for all T-6 Texan II operations to ensure safety after a cluster of unexplained physiological events, primarily hypoxia, occurred at Columbus Air Force Base, Vance AFB in Oklahoma, and Sheppard AFB in Texas during the last week.

It's unclear how long the "pause" might last, although a similar event at another base last fall went on for three weeks.

CAFB, which trains about a third of the Air Force's new pilots each year, has 99 of the airplanes, which were first introduced at the  base in October 2006. The single-engine, two-seat propeller-driven plane is used to train students on basic flying skills.

According to CAFB's economic impact report for the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent year available, the T-6 made up 31,602 of the 56.642 sorties flown from the base and 41,139 of the 77,299 hours logged by pilots during the year.

The base would not comment specifically Thursday on the impact of the grounding, how many airmen might be impacted and what they will do in the interim. Some training can occur on simulators or in classrooms.

Base leaders also would not say how many incidents had been reported specifically at CAFB or any other base in the last week.

But others say the concern is growing.

"It's a really big deal because they don't know what is causing it. And there is a real safety factor at issue. You can't have a pilot losing control in flight," said a former Air Force pilot who is now retired and working in the private sector in the Golden Triangle.

CAFB also is home to 58 T-38C Talon aircraft and 47 T-1A Jayhawks.

According to an Air Force statement, Maj. Gen. Patrick Doherty directed the operational pause, to enable the Air Force to "examine the root causes of the incidents, educate and listen to aircrew, develop and deliver mitigation solutions."

“The safety of our instructors and student pilots is paramount and has been our priority and focus,” said Doherty, 19th Air Force commander. “We’re acting swiftly, making temporary, but necessary, changes to everyone’s training, general awareness, checklist procedures, and possibly modify aircrew flying equipment to mitigate risk to the aircrew while we tackle this issue head-on to safeguard everyone flying T-6s.”

In mid-January, the Air Force established a general officer-led team to investigate unexplained physiological events. That review is being led by Brig. Gen. Bobbi Jo Doorenbos.

The Air Force says reports of hypoxia-like symptoms -- shortness of breath, confusion, wheezing -- during flights traditionally are low -- 1 percent or less of flights a year. But increased awareness among trainees, instructor pilots and pilots has increased the number of reports.

At Vance Air Force Base, more than 100 T-6 planes were grounded from Nov. 15 to Dec. 6 after a series of complaints from pilots. But an investigation never pinpointed a cause, despite an extensive review by Air Force and medical professionals, and industry and psychological experts.

At the time, the Air Force made some changes to try to mitigate the occurrences and did say, "specific concerns were eliminated as possible causes, including maintenance and aircrew flight equipment procedures."

While the T-6 has been the focus, pilots in other planes also have reported hypoxia symptoms.

More than two dozen A-10 Thunderbolt IIs at Davis-Montham Air Base in Arizona were parked in November after two pilots reported hypoxia symptoms. And in June, flights of the F-35A were halted at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona because of pilot complaints.

Hypoxia reports involving the F-35A date back to 2011, according to Air Force News.

The base is home to 1,447 military personnel, 554 civil service workers, 522 contractors and 143 others, making it the region's largest employer. Its economic impact on the region tops $250 million a year.