The family of a dead F-22 Raptor fighter pilot said they have been vindicated by a damning Pentagon report that says the Air Force did not have the evidence to blame the pilot for the crash that took his life.
Jennifer Haney, sister of the late Capt. Jeff Haney and family spokesperson, told ABC News she was "very happy about the [Pentagon Inspector General] pointing out some of the discrepancies that we saw all along" in the Air Force's account of the November 2010 crash that killed her brother.
"In the end, I really hope Jeff's name will be cleared," she said. "I never have believed he was to blame."
The Haney crash was the centerpiece of an ABC News' "Nightline" investigation that aired May 2, 2012. Haney was killed during a routine training mission in Alaska shortly after his plane malfunctioned and his oxygen system shut down completely.
After investigating the incident for more than a year, the Air Force released a crash report in December 2011 that said that while Haney likely suffered a "sense similar to suffocation" before he died, he was still to blame for the crash because he was too distracted to fly the plane properly. Perhaps he was struggling to activate the manual emergency oxygen back-up system, the service said.
In the "Nightline" report, Jennifer Haney said in an exclusive interview that by blaming her brother rather than the $420 million plane, the Air Force showed it was more interested in protecting its $79 billion F-22 program than its airmen.
"To them, Jeff was a number, it feels like sometimes. But those jets are worth a lot of money," she said then.
The new Pentagon IG report, the result of the first major crash investigation review conducted by the IG's office since the mid-1990s and published Monday, says that the Air Force's conclusions are at times contradictory, incomplete or "not supported by the facts."
In response, the Air Force said it convened its own special task force to review its investigation, and the task force found the original conclusions were adequately supported.
"Now they will bicker back and forth, so we will have to wait and see what happens and what changes, if any, are made to the [Air Force] report," Jennifer Haney said Tuesday.
The F-22 Raptor is America's single most expensive fighter jet at an estimated $420 million each -- in all a $79 billion-and-counting program that represents part of the Air Force's costly foray into fifth-generation stealth fighters. The jets, which have yet to be sent on a combat mission, for years were plagued with a mysterious oxygen-related problem in which on rare occasions its pilots would report experiencing the symptoms of oxygen deprivation in mid-flight. The Air Force believes it has solved that problem.
Air Force Blames Pilot 'By Clear and Convincing Evidence'
On Nov. 16, 2010 Haney had just completed a routine training exercise when a malfunction in the plane shut down his oxygen system. Capt. Haney never made a distress call but took his plane into a dive and, a little over a minute later, crashed into the winter wilderness at faster than the speed of sound.
In an Accident Investigation Board (AIB) report, the Air Force never found the original cause of the malfunction, but in a Statement of Opinion concluded "by clear and convincing evidence, the cause of the mishap was the MP's [mishap pilot's] failure to recognize and initiate a timely dive recovery due to channelized attention, breakdown of visual scan, and unrecognized spatial disorientation."
In an exclusive interview with ABC News in May 2012, Jennifer Haney said she immediately called the Air Force's conclusion into question and believed that, in addition to the original unknown malfunction's role, it seemed obvious her brother had blacked out while trying to save himself. Therefore, she said, he could not have been responsible for the crash.
"I don't agree with [the Air Force]. I think there was a lot more going on inside that cockpit," Jennifer said. "A cover-up? I don't know. But there's something... I'd like to think it's easier to blame Jeff. He's not here to defend himself."
Pierre Sprey, an early fighter jet designer and vocal critic of the F-22, said the Air Force's original report on Haney's crash was twisted to shield the aircraft from blame.
"From front to back, they're warping every fact you see in that thing, to make sure they will call it pilot error and not to blame [F-22 manufacturer] Lockheed [Martin] or not to blame the Air Force or the airplane," Sprey told ABC News in May. "Here you have a superb pilot and an airplane that wasn't designed to take care of him. And now they're blaming it on him and he shouldn't have died in the first place… The priorities are hardware first, people second."
In the course of its investigation, ABC News obtained an Air Force-made computer simulation of Haney's crash that shows that in the middle of Haney's oxygen-deprived dive, he doesn't appear to move the controls for approximately 15 seconds. Jennifer said that mysterious long pause in the middle of an emergency, along with the lack of a radio call, is evidence that her brother wasn't awake for at least part of the dive. Steve Ganyard, an ABC News consultant and former U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot, said that after watching the computer simulation, he too believes Haney was unconscious at least part of the time.
"I think that [the Air Force's] conclusions are debatable at the very least... I just cannot believe that this pilot, as good as he is, knowing that the airplane is in an extreme position, is still conscious," Ganyard said.
Now, the Pentagon Inspector General's office says it agrees.
"It is unclear how sudden incapacitation or unconsciousness was determined to be a non-contributory factor by the AIB [Air Force Accident Investigation Board], or why levels of partial incapacitation or impairment were not considered," the IG report says.
Haney did appear to try to pull out of his dive three seconds before impact -- one second too late to save himself. The Air Force has said that was evidence he was not incapacitated and only disoriented before his death.
The question of Haney's consciousness is listed by the IG as one of five "deficiencies" in the AIB report, others including the uncertainty over the status of Haney's oxygen mask and his possible attempt to turn on an emergency oxygen system.
"The AIB report lacked detailed analysis of several areas," the IG report said.
After the Air Force was informed of the Inspector General's conclusions, the service said it convened a separate task force to review the AIB report. The task force found that while some portions of the AIB could have been written more clearly, the service stands by its original accounting of the cause of the crash.
"That group of experts validated the AIB's conclusions," an Air Force spokesperson told ABC News.
The spokesperson said the service is currently rewriting its crash report to clarify certain points raised by the Inspector General's report.
Last August the plane's primary manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, along with other defense contractors involved in the plane's production, settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Haney's widow, Anna. The suit had contended that the companies knowingly provided the Air Force with a "defective" aircraft and that Capt. Jeff Haney was a casualty of that decision. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.