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Air Force leader: Some pilots want to avoid F-22

Some of the nation's 200 F-22 Raptor pilots want to be moved into other jobs because of oxygen-deficit problems with the stealth fighter, an Air Force leader said Monday.

Gen. Mike Hostage, commander of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., told reporters that a "very small" number of pilots have asked not to fly the fifth-generation fighter jets or to be reassigned.

"Obviously it's a very sensitive thing because we are trying to ensure that the community fully understands all that we're doing to try to get to a solution," Hostage said.

He did not provide exact figures on the number of pilots who have asked to not fly the jets and said each pilot's request would be handled individually.

Air Force officials believe the airplane is safe to fly — Hostage noted that he'll fly soon because he won't ask a pilot to do something that he will not.

"I'm going to check out and fly the airplane so I can understand exactly what it is they're dealing with. The day we figure out what the problem is I will stop flying (the plane) because we don't have enough sorties for all of our combat aviators to get as much training as they need," he said.

The nation's F-22 fighter jets were grounded for four months last year after pilots complained of experiencing a lack of oxygen that can cause dizziness and blackouts. Air Force officials said they have taken steps against the problem, but still haven't pinpointed what's causing the hypoxia-like symptoms. Hypoxia is when the body doesn't receive enough oxygen.

An Air Force panel is meeting weekly to investigate the problem and has enlisted the help of NASA and the Navy to learn more about what happens to the body under extreme conditions, among other things.

Hostage spoke during a media day event at the base, highlighting the nation's most advanced fighter plane. After being introduced in 2005, the last of nearly 190 jets are scheduled to be delivered to the Air Force this week.

At a price tag of $143 million each, the Raptor has come under some criticism for not being used in place of older and less-sophisticated jets in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Hostage said the plane is critical to maintaining the nation's air superiority in the future and that he wishes he had more of the jets at his disposal. On Monday, Iran's defense minister said that reports of the stealth fighter jet being deployed to the United Arab Emirates would damage regional security, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.

Without saying which country in the region the F-22s were deployed to — or which base or bases they were deployed from — Hostage said there's a reason other nations take note of the plane's movements.

"People pay attention to where this airplane goes and what it does because, regardless of the furor in our press and public about the suitability or the safety of the airplane, they're very worried about its capability. That, to me, means we're on the right path with this capability," he said.

The planes are stationed at five other bases besides Virginia: Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

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Online: Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis