The final draft of the FY 2019 defense authorization bill, which the House passed on Thursday, makes several policy changes to help the Navy and Air Force continue to root out the problem of physiological episodes (PE) in aircraft.

An uptick in physiological episodes has recently bedeviled military pilots, particularly those flying Navy and Air Force T-45 and T-6A trainers as well as F/A-18s (Defense Daily, March 8 and Feb. 27).

A T-45C Goshawk training jet approaches an aircraft carrier. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)
A T-45C Goshawk training jet approaches an aircraft carrier. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)

The House National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) draft had a provision requiring the Secretary of the Navy to modify F/A-18s to reduce the occurrence and mitigate risks posed by PEs. The Senate agreed but added an amendment eliminating a related provision that would have required the installment of an automatic ground collision avoidance system. The conferees also expect F/A-18G Growlers to receive any necessary modifications.

At a minimum the Navy Secretary is directed to replace the aircraft’s cockpit altimeter, upgrade the onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS), redesign F/A-18 aircraft life support systems required to meet OBOGS input specifications, and install equipment associated with improving F/A-18 physiological monitoring and alert systems.

These changes come with a requirement the Navy Secretary report annually to the defense committees on the status of these modifications from February 2019-2021.

The House also required the Navy Secretary to report to the defense committees on the modifications made to the Boeing [BA] T-45 Goshawk trainer aircraft to mitigate PEs. The Senate receded to that but added an amendment moving the required information into quarterly updates from the Navy’s Physiological Episode Action Team (PEAT) directed by the FY ’18 NDAA.

The bill maintained a House provision requiring both the Secretaries of the Navy and Air Force to certify before entering into a contract to procure any fighter, attack, or fixed-wing aircraft that it contains the “most recent technological advancements necessary to minimize the impact of physiological episodes on aircraft crewmembers,” the conference report said.

It also kept a House provision requiring the Secretary of the Air Force to submit a report on Air Force efforts to mitigate PEs, describe what actions the Air Force has taken, and explain any organization changes to mitigate the problem by next March.

Notably, the bill kept a newly directed national commission on military aviation safety drafted by the House Armed Services Committee last May. The committee leaders said while inadequate and unpredictable funding likely caused an increase in aviation mishaps in recent years they want the commission to look at other causes while also reviewing the PE problems. (Defense Daily, May 9).

The T-6A Texan II trainer. (U.S. Air Force photo)
The T-6A Texan II trainer. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Relatedly, the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) awarded Boeing a $12 million order to support T-45 PE modifications. The order, under a previous basic ordering agreement (BOA), supports the development and delivery of an engineering change proposal for the integration of automatic backup oxygen systems into the T-45 aircraft through a critical design review closure.

Work will occur in St. Louis and is expected to be finished by August 2019. The full funding amount is obligated at award time and will expire at the end of the current fiscal year.