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Air Force takes last F-22, but oxygen problems persist

7:43 PM, May 2, 2012   |    comments
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  • Ceremony with Lockheed Martin handing over the "key" to Air Force.
  • Jeff Babione, VP and GM of Lockheed Martin F-16 and F-22 program
  • Wide shot of F-22 outside hangar with Lockheed Martin logo
  • Wide shot of F-22 with crowd around it

MARIETTA, GA - Wednesday marked a bittersweet moment for Lockheed Martin's Marietta plant.

Twenty-one years after winning the contract for America's stealth fighter plane, the company's last F-22 "Raptor" was handed over to the U.S. Air Force.

PHOTO GALLERY | Last F-22 Handed To Air Force

There was a lot of pomp and patriotism at a big delivery ceremony, but underneath it all was the awareness that the Air Force only ended up with 195 of the planes instead of the 1,300 originally planned.

At more than $143-million each, the F-22's numbers were whittled down over several years by defense budget cuts and the belief by some that we didn't need so many of them.

Even more disturbing for the program, is the fact that some of the 200 Air Force pilots qualified on the F-22 don't want to fly it anymore.

That admission came Monday from Air Force General Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia.

Even though the Air Force officially believes the plane is safe to fly, some pilots are worried about a persistent problem with its oxygen system, which can cause dizziness or even blackouts.

The oxygen problem grounded the entire F-22 fleet for four months last year for corrections, but the cause of the hypoxia-like symptoms still hasn't been pinpointed.

General Hostage attended Wednesday's delivery ceremony in Marietta, along with General Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, but reporters were not allowed to interview those generals.

We were allowed to ask questions of Jeff Babione, Vice-President and General Manager of Lockheed Martin's F-16 and F-22 programs.

"We are fully engaged in supporting the Air Force in trying to understand exactly what is causing a problem and taking care of it," Babione told 11Alive News.

He said tracking it down is complicated in such a sophisticated weapons system.

"What the pilot does in the F-22, the environment that he's subjected to (is) very complex, so we're trying to understand how does the airplane interact with that pilot, how can we make sure that he maintains a safe environment going forward," Babione added.

Among the politicians attending the ceremony was U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson.

I asked him if he was worried that the F-22 program is ending just as China and Russian are testing similar stealth fighters.

He pointed out that America has a 20 year head start.

"The opposition is always trying to get ahead of you, but now they're trying to catch up with us and that's because we've done a good job developing the aircraft we need in this country," Isakson said.

In 2005 Lockheed Martin had about 5,600 employees working on the F-22 project, 944 in Marietta for final assembly.

Right now that number is only 1,650 with 930 of them here.

The company says it will try to absorb most of them on other projects, including the 60-year-old C-130 program and the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project.

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