OTTAWA â€” Aerospace giant Boeing Co. says it is working to address concerns raised by Canadian officials and others over pilots reporting oxygen deprivation and cockpit pressure loss while flying its Super Hornet fighter jets.
But a solution has so far been elusive while the number of reported problems continues to rise, raising questions about the potential risk to Canadian pilots as the Liberals move to purchase 18 of the warplanes.
Figures provided to a U.S. House Armed Services subcommittee last week show there has been a steady increase in pilots reporting loss of oxygen or pressure while flying U.S. Navy Super Hornets in recent years.
There were 31 such “physiological episodes” per 100,000 flying hours from November 2015 to October 2016 — an 11 per cent increase from the previous year, and three times the rate reported in 2010-11.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Boeing vice-president of global sales Roberto Valla said Canadian officials have raised the issue with the company.
The Liberal government announced last November that it wanted to buy 18 Super Hornets to augment Canada’s aging CF-18s until a full competition could be run to replace the entire CF-18 fleets in a few years.
“Yes, we have received questions along those lines,” Valla said. “But our commitment to work with the United States Navy to resolve this matter is an unwavering commitment.”
That appears to be easier said than done as the U.S. Navy and Boeing have shown little progress in addressing the problem despite Navy officials calling it the force’s top safety priority for over a year.
The physiological episodes are broken into two categories: those in which pilots breath gas and those involving sudden changes in air pressure, both of which threaten flight safety.
Members of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee in Washington expressed concerns on March 28 about the rising number of such problems with the Super Hornets and older Hornet jets.
The head of Boeing’s Super Hornet program, Dan Gillian, said several fixes have been introduced, such as changing the warplanes’ filters and the way some components are maintained.
“I want to be clear that the airplane is performing for its requirements and per specifications,” Gillian said.
“Having said that, we see this issue, we take it seriously, and are working with the U.S. Navy to improve the performance of the airplane in this regard.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokeswoman, Jordan Owens, says the Super Hornets that Canada plans to buy must meet set standards when it comes to oxygen.
“The oxygen requirements of the potential interim fleet would be required to meet industry, regulatory, and operational standards,” she said, “as well as the RCAF’s training and operational demands.”
Valla and Gillian were in Ottawa to meet with government officials as Boeing draws up a formal plan for selling Super Hornets to Canada, a purchase the government hopes to make official by year’s end.
One of the key questions is how Canada will pay to buy the 18 “interim” aircraft, which are technically being sold through the U.S. government.
Gillian said the U.S. Navy pays around $70 million (USD) per plane, which would work out to about $1.75 billion (CAD) given current exchange rates and the U.S. government’s standard 3.5 per cent fee.
But that doesn’t include upgrades to existing Canadian military infrastructure, training or long-term maintenance costs, and some have pegged the full cost at between $5 billion and $7 billion.
Asked about those numbers, Valla said: “It’s easy to put out a number. It’s very difficult to say what actually makes up the number.”
The two also wouldn’t comment on when the Liberal government wants the Super Hornets in the air, though they were adamant Boeing would be able to deliver.
“We think we can deliver to meet Canada’s needs,” Gillian said. “Boeing has a long history of working with Canada and delivering great product on time and on cost. That is our heritage together.”
– Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press