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Defense officials call Air Force F-22 probe sloppy and inadequate

Critics of the Air Force's decision to blame a costly F-22 crash on its pilot have some ammunition

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When Air Force Capt. Jeff Haney’s F-22 fighter crashed in Nov. 2010, while he was gasping for oxygen in the cockpit, the Air Force surprisingly blamed it on him – not the plane.

In a controversial Accident Investigation Board report released a year after the accident, Air Force officials cited three “human factors” as causing the crash: Haney’s “channelized attention” to restoring air flow to his oxygen mask; his failure to keep an eye on his instruments and surroundings; and his “unrecognized spatial disorientation” while plummeting to earth.

The Air Force’s critics, as well as Haney’s family, immediately alleged that the service had sacrificed the reputation of one of its pilots to hide a defect in the $412 million advanced fighter jets so it could preserve political and financial support for them. The Air Force denied it. But now the critics suddenly have some new ammunition.

In a report released Feb. 6, the Department of Defense’s Deputy Inspector General Randolph R. Stone accused the Air Force of conducting a sloppy, inadequate probe of Haney’s deadly crash in the wintry Alaska wilderness.

Stone wrote that the Air Force’s conclusions were “not supported by the facts” presented and didn’t exhaust all investigative leads. He said the three human factors cited by the board were “separate, distinct and conflicting,” and concluded that the Air Force did not explain how they all could have worked together to cause the crash.

The report’s errors and omissions called into question the Air Force board’s conclusions, Stone and his colleagues said. The Air Force, in its response, conceded its account of the accident “could have been more clearly written,” but insisted that findings were supported by clear and convincing evidence and that the board had exhausted all available investigative leads.

The auditors said they weren’t buying it, however, partly because they found the board had failed to analyze how factors such as hypoxia, loss of consciousness due to high g-forces and sudden incapacitation may have affected the pilot. Neither did the board adequately explain how it decided Haney’s mask was in the full-up position as the plane sank – a conclusion that ruled out several other areas of investigation, including the possibility that Haney had removed his mask because the oxygen flow was too weak.

The accident occurred on a flight out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage. The Air Force board said that Haney failed to pull out of a dive, causing him to slam into the ground near a stream in the Talkeetna Mountains. Haney’s widow, Anna Haney, alleged to the contrary that the plane was “dangerous and defective” in a lawsuit against the plane’s builders, Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co., Honeywell and Pratt & Whitney. She reached a confidential settlement with the contractors last year, according to the Air Force Times.

The crash focused new concerns on the oxygen systems originally installed in the Air Force’s state-of-the-art F-22’s, which have been criticized by some as models of costly, goldplated weapons systems that are hard to maintain and ill-suited to fulfill present-day needs.

The Obama administration decided to stop buying the planes in 2009, but at the time of the accident, the plane’s advocates were trying to keep open the option of restarting its assembly line. “The Air Force has always circled the wagons around that airplane,” said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the nonprofit watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight.

Two pilots appeared on the CBS television network’s “60 Minutes” program last year saying they had suffered hypoxia, or oxygen deprivation, during flights and as a result they had taken out extra life insurance.

A Nov. 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service report states that the Air Force has records of at least 25 incidents where F-22 pilots reported hypoxia-like symptoms in flight, possibly due to oxygen deprivation. Hypoxia can cause nausea, headaches, fatigue or blackouts.

As the Center for Public Integrity has previously reported, the aircraft’s problems with its oxygen system are not the only ones it has faced. Since the first F-22 rolled off the assembly line in 2003, it has suffered at least six accidents costing over $1 million each while experiencing mechanical breakdowns that could require another decade of redesign and repairs.

On its first overseas deployment, for example, a squad of F-22’s lost all their computer systems in flight and had to be led back to base by mid-air tankers, a retired Air Force general said. The fleet was grounded in 2010 because of rusted ejection-seat parts. The planes were grounded again in 2011 following complaints about the oxygen system and Haney’s fatal crash.

For its part, the Air Force has promised to give the Inspector General’s office a more detailed analysis of the “non-causal” factors, such as hypoxia, and details of how it reached its conclusions regarding the emergency oxygen activation system and blood oxygen levels. The inspector general’s office asked that the work be done by the end of this month.