The U.S. Air Force is blaming an F-22 fighter pilot for the crash that cost his life, even though the plane -- one of a fleet plagued by oxygen system problems and never flown in combat -- malfunctioned, causing "severe restrictive breathing" and basically suffocating him as his jet flipped over and slammed into the ground in the Alaskan wilderness.
Capt. Jeff Haney was on a training mission in Alaska in November 2010 when his F-22 Raptor alerted him to a malfunction that cut off his oxygen supply, according to an investigative report released by the Air Force late Wednesday. Unable to breathe, Haney, a veteran and award-winning aviator, appeared in control for a few seconds as he took the plane to a lower altitude, but then the plane whipped into a radical roll that caused his jet to flip over and plummet to the ground. As he was falling, Haney didn't appear to fight the dive at all until the last second, too late to save his life.
"During the [mishap sortie], the [mishap pilot] most likely experienced a sense similar to suffocation when airflow to the oxygen mask stopped," the report says. "This was likely the [pilot's] first experience under such physiological duress. The unique and added stress of the breathing restriction contributed to the [pilot's] channelized attention."
Despite acknowledging the critical system failure, the Air Force blamed the crash on the pilot's "channelized attention," saying he was too distracted by his inability to breathe and should have focused on flipping on an emergency oxygen system and pulling the plane out of its dive.
"By clear and convincing evidence, I find the cause of the mishap was the [pilot's] failure to recognize and initiate a timely dive recovery due to channelized attention, breakdown of visual scan and unrecognized spatial disorientation," the president of the investigation board, Brig. Gen. James Browne, said in conclusion.
Known Issues with F-22 Oxygen Supply
Potential problems with the F-22 oxygen system were known to the Air Force two years before Haney's death. Starting in 2008, the Air Force said its pilots have experienced "hypoxia-like symptoms" mid-flight in at least 12 separate incidents. Hypoxia is characterized by a lack of oxygen flow to the brain and can cause dizziness, confusion and poor judgment. Despite having little or no oxygen for more than a minute, Haney did not suffer from hypoxia, the new report says.
The entire fleet of F-22s was grounded in May 2011 for five months as the Air Force investigated the breathing problem, but it was never solved and eventually the military cautiously allowed the Raptors back in the air. Not long after, however, another pilot reported hypoxia-like symptoms, prompting a smaller, temporary "pause" in operations at two F-22 bases.
But just because they're back in the air, doesn't mean they're going back to combat.
In fact the planes, which cost the U.S. government $77 billion for a fleet of 187 jets and went operational in December 2005, have never been used in active combat operations despite the Air Force's involvement in major combat operations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Libya. In every case, the Air Force said the jets, which are designed to fight other next-generation stealth fighters and not third-world insurgents, simply weren't an operational necessity.
The Mysterious Death of Fighter Ace Capt. Jeff Haney
Though the Air Force report gives a detailed, minute-by-minute account of Haney's last moments through recovered flight data, it leaves several key questions unanswered. By the Air Force's account, Haney's squadron had just completed an unremarkable training mission on the evening of Nov. 16, 2010 when Haney's plane detected a "bleed air leak" in a critical oxygen system. The malfunction triggered a sequence that cut off oxygen to Haney's mask.
Haney took the plane to a lower altitude and then, curiously, entered a radical 240 degree roll and started falling fast. For approximately the next 15 seconds, "there were no stick inputs and only very minor pedal inputs," the report says, referring to the aircraft's controls.
After rocketing towards the earth for a quarter of a minute without movement, Haney suddenly lurched at the stick, pulling it back in an attempt to pull out of the dive. But by then it was too late. Three seconds later Haney crashed into a valley in the Alaska mountains approximately 100 miles north of Anchorage. Recovery crews would find debris as far as a quarter mile away from what the report called a "crater" where the plane hit.
Browne said in the report it was most likely Haney entered into the fateful dive accidentally while trying to "resolve airflow to the oxygen mask." Why Haney didn't immediately recognize the dive and pull out is a mystery, but the Air Force said he did not pass out and was more likely disoriented.
The Air Force also does not know why Haney did not activate the emergency oxygen system or, once he was at a proper altitude, simply take off his mask to breathe. Rescue teams noted that both the emergency oxygen system was never activated and Haney was found with his mask securely in place.
One possibility, the report says, was that the ring that has to be pulled to activate the emergency oxygen system, if dropped, can be difficult for a pilot to recover -- apparently similar to dropping one's keys between the seat and console of a car. The other possibility, the one the report repeatedly comes back to, is that Haney simply failed to save his own life.
"The [mishap pilot] displayed channelized attention when the OBOGS [oxygen system] stopped airflow to [his] oxygen mask and caused severe restrictive breathing," the report says. "The [pilot's] channelization attention caused a breakdown in his visual scan. This delayed recognition of the [aircraft's] attitude and thereby delayed the corrective actions necessary to recover the [aircraft]."
The final mystery: The Air Force still doesn't know what caused the malfunction that started it all.