This article was written by Mark Thompson and first was published on the Center for Defense Information at POGO. Read the original article. The opinion of the authors does not necessarily correspond with that of the editorial team. Want your opinion to be featured on AeroTime? Send us a line at editor@aerotime.aero.


An ancient Greek tale says that Icarus drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after he ignored his father’s advice to fly low to avoid the sun’s warmth during their attempted escape from the isle of Crete. He chose instead to soar upward on his manmade wings, where the sun melted the wax binding his feathers to his body and sent him plunging to his death. But it wasn’t so much heat, as hubris, that doomed him.

Adventurers have been trying to cheat the heavens ever since. And, as was the case with Icarus, aviation’s weak link is often the human at the helm.

Metal and carbon-fiber warplanes have been outflying their flesh-and-blood pilots for decades. I first got wind of this more than 30 years ago as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where I covered the Fort Worth-built F-16 like white on rice. It seemed that the then-new hot fighter could fly so fast and turn so sharp that it could keep enough blood from a pilot’s brain to render him (they were all hims back then) unconscious in a matter of seconds.

Cutting-edge technologies shouldn’t be used to turn the U.S. military’s highly-trained pilots (it costs $11 million to train a fighter-jet jockey) into guinea pigs.

Such human frailties have led to an alphabet soup of trouble, and how to avoid it: That G-induced loss of consciousness (GLOC) has led to the development of GCAS (ground collision avoidance systems). And there’s the latest cockpit option (with the worst acronym, which sounds a lot like the cute coveralls toddlers wear): the On-Board Oxygen Generating System, or OBOGS.

“Flying headlong into the ground is the single biggest killer of fighter pilots in the Air Force,” Air Force Magazine reported two years ago. “The phenomenon known as Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT) is responsible for 75 percent of F-16 pilot fatalities and is often due to disorientation or loss of consciousness while maneuvering at low altitude.”

Of course, it’s part of the military’s DNA to, ahem, push the envelope. For pilots, that can mean flying longer missions from more austere bases—even if the cost isn’t worth it, and the need to do it is vanishingly tiny. But it’s that quest that has brought us OBOGS and its dangerous complications.

The systems, developed in the 1980s and now common on military aircraft, suck in thin air from the engine intakes. Then they purify, cool and concentrate it into a 95 percent oxygen gas to keep pilots alive and alert. The system replaces traditional liquid oxygen systems, which limited a pilot’s flight time, especially a problem in planes that can be refueled in midair. Such liquid systems also can’t always be resupplied at the primitive forward air bases the military says it may need to fly from in the next war, but hardly ever does.