Friday, May 02, 2014

Lawmakers seek resolution for Langley F-22 pilots

Sen. Mark R. Warner has again joined with an Illinois lawmaker on behalf of two whistle-blowing pilots at Langley Air Force Base, this time in hopes of saving one's career.

Warner, a Democrat, and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger have written to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about Maj. Jeremy Gordon and Capt. Joshua Wilson. Both belong to the Virginia Air National Guard and flew the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.

Two years ago this month, Gordon and Wilson appeared on "60 Minutes" to say they didn't feel confident flying the jet, which at the time was plagued by a small but troubling number of unexplained cases where pilots felt dizzy or disoriented while in the cockpit. Gordon and Wilson both experienced that problem..

While both men said they believed in the aircraft's capabilities, their lack of confidence stemmed from the inability to pinpoint the problem.

After an exhaustive investigation, the Air Force redesigned some pilot equipment and agreed to install an automatic, backup oxygen system. But Warner and Kinzinger said one pilot's career is also in need of an overhaul.

"While the F-22 airplane fleet is finally advancing toward getting back on track, we cannot say the same for the courageous pilots who came forward," their letter states.

Although the letter mentions both men, the lawmakers and their attorney said Wilson has suffered the most. While Gordon has moved on and is not flying the Raptor, Wilson wants to return to the cockpit. His career remains in limbo while he awaits the findings of a Defense Department Inspector General's report.

Warner and Kinzinger said two years is more than enough time for the IG's office to complete its work.

"The Inspector General needs time to make a conclusion, but this doesn't feel right," Warner said in an interview.

Kinzinger suspects the military is dragging its feet in an attempt to wait out Wilson and hope the pilot gives up. "That's my theory," he said.

Wilson has been grounded for two years, and that was recently extended for another year, said Kinzinger, himself a pilot who has trained with Wilson.

Wilson's status has been essentially unchanged since 2012, said his attorney, Rick Morgan. He has received letters of reprimand and poor evaluations after voicing his worries about the jet. Before the controversy, Wilson was earning nearly $100,000 a year, working for Air Combat Command at Langley as a full-time Air Force employee and flying as a National Guard pilot.

He has long since been relieved of both jobs. His work at ACC involved advance planning for the 2013 inauguration of President Obama, and at the time was looking forward to a promotion, his attorney has said.

The Air Force referred comment on the case to the Virginia Air National Guard. A Guard spokesman said he couldn't comment because they are awaiting results of the IG's investigation.

"This cannot stand," the letter states. "We must provide an accountable system where people who come forward can feel free to do so without fear of retaliation."

Warner successfully co-sponsored the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, meant to report those who report sexual assault or other misconduct or fraud. It came in the wake of a Government Accountability Office audit that found less that 1 percent of service members who filed reprisal complaints obtained relief, and only 19 percent of those who experienced retaliation had their records corrected.

The lengthy delay in the pilots' case "sends a chilling message ... that if you come forward as a whistle blower to report wrongdoing, there is a high likelihood that your career will be derailed, you may lose pay and benefits and your family will suffer retaliation."

If the Air Force hands down anything for Wilson, it should be a commendation, Warner said. The pilot correctly pointed to a problem with a charcoal filter that was initially installed to fix the problem.

In 2012, a report from Boeing determined that the filter made it more difficult for the pilots to breathe and recommended it be pulled from the aircraft. That recommendation was handed down April 2 and the Air Force removed the filter about one month later.

Wilson's disciplinary case took shape around the time of the Boeing study. First, Wilson expressed concern to commanders that the filter was making things worse in the cockpit. He cited an Air Force doctor's opinion that he not fly with the filter installed. Then in early April, Wilson's commanders refused to renew his orders to serve with Air Combat Command. Losing that full-time duty reduced his annual pay 90 percent and ended many of his military benefits, Morgan said.

Kinzinger said someone in the military needs to resolve the case.

"You ask, who has this, and it seems that fingers are always pointing somewhere else," he said.