Luke Air Force Base grounds all F-35 flights

Posted: Updated:
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(AP) -

The Air Force says it has temporarily stopped flying F-35 fighter jets at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona in response to a series of incidents in which pilots reported symptoms of hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation.

[RELATED: Uncertain F-35 future worries some west Valley businesses] 

Air Force spokesman Capt. Mark Graff said the temporary halt followed five separate in-flight incidents since May 2. Graff said in each case, the airplane's backup oxygen system worked as designed and the pilot was able to land the plane safely.

"The Air Force takes these physiological incidents seriously, and our focus is on the safety and well-being of our pilots," said Brig. Gen. Brook Leonard, 56th Fighter Wing commander at Luke. "We are taking the necessary steps to find the root cause of these incidents."

The cancellation is limited to F-35s at Luke, and the Air Force intends to resume flight operations there on Monday, Graff said. He initially said flying would resume Saturday but later said he had been mistaken. Luke normally does not conduct F-35 flight operations over the weekend, he said. F-35 operations at five other U.S. bases are not affected, he said.

"In order to synchronize operations and maintenance efforts toward safe flying operations we have canceled local F-35A flying. The Air Force takes these physiological incidents seriously, and our focus is on the safety and well-being of our pilots," said Brig. Gen. Brook Leonard, 56th Fighter Wing commander. "We are taking the necessary steps to find the root cause of these incidents."

[RELATED: F-35 War Birds: Worth the cost?]

Graff said the Air Force has established an "action team" of engineers, maintenance specialists and aeromedical specialists to study the five incidents.

[FIELD TRIP FRIDAY: Luke Air Force Base]

According to Maj. Rebecca Heyse, the head of public affairs at Luke, the only incidents of F-35 pilots experiencing hypoxia in the past month, have been reported at Luke.  

“They’re pretty rare. And it’s just having 5 within a little over a month that our commander decided to go ahead and just cancel flying operations today in order to focus on the safety of all the pilots since that’s our top priority,” said Heyse.

All F-35 pilots go through oxygen deprivation training to learn how to identify the symptoms, which include dizziness, disorientation and tingling in extremities. Extreme oxygen can cause a loss of consciousness.

“One of the things that the commander directed is that before the pilots return to the aircraft, they will all be going through refresher on that oxygen deprivation training,” said Heyse.

While the root cause of the issue has not been identified, the plan is for the pilots to resume F-35 training missions on Monday.

“Safety is our top priority. These pilots are the best trained in the world and we have the best-trained instructor pilots that fly along-side our students every single day. And so our commander is not going to let those pilots get back in the air if he’s not 100% confident that they are going to be able to recognize these symptoms and mitigate them if necessary,” said Heyse.

© 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed