Exclusive: Air Force Warned of Fatal F-22 Fighter Flaw Decade Before Crash

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Safety System Cut to Save Cash

Though the Air Force investigators' crash findings were made public last December, it wasn't until this May -- more than 12 years after the warning document was written, a year and a half after Haney's death and in the wake of prominent news reports including an ABC News "Nightline" investigation -- that an Air Force Scientific Advisory Board recommended that the Air Force give the Raptor an automatic back-up oxygen system. In addition to Haney's crash, the advisory board had been looking into why, in at least two dozen incidents since 2008, F-22 pilots had experienced the symptoms of oxygen deprivation in mid-air while the oxygen system appeared to be working properly.

In June the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $19 million contract to retrofit 40 jets in the fleet with the new automatic system, designed to kick in whenever the plane's instruments detected an interruption in the oxygen flow, such as in the case of an ECS failure. A month later the Pentagon announced it believed it had solved the mystery oxygen deprivation problem with the other F-22 pilots, which it said was unrelated to Haney's crash, but would be going ahead with the automatic back-up system regardless.

According to a top Air Force official, however, installing such a back-up oxygen system for the $420 million-a-piece planes was not a new idea, but one that was scrapped to save money years before Haney climbed in the cockpit.

"The back-up oxygen system was originally in the design of the F-22, as we got into cost constraints it was eliminated from the design," Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Lyon told reporters earlier this month.

The Air Force later clarified Lyon's comments.

"In his response, General Lyon was summarizing a Scientific Advisory Board discussion about the necessary trade-offs made in the early history of the jet between improving safety margins and controlling costs. During the F-22's development, the decision to select an emergency oxygen system (EOS) -- as referenced in his remarks -- was determined to provide an acceptable level of control for the risk of an interrupted air flow, based on operational experience in legacy fighters," the Air Force said in a statement to ABC News. Lockheed Martin began developing the F-22 in mid-1980s and was awarded an Air Force contract for the plane in 1991, according to the Air Force.

The new system, the Air Force said, will "further improve that safety margin that is provided by the [emergency oxygen system]."

Jennifer Haney questioned why the military would have "skimped" on a safety precaution in a program that's estimated to cost $79 billion.

"I'm glad they saved money, but they didn't save Jeff," she said. "I understand that things can be expensive, but when you have a jet that is capable of doing the things that the jet can do and all the technology it has, I can't understand why you would sacrifice on the safety of the pilots you are putting in the jet to fly it."

'They Knew There Was a Problem'

Jeff Haney's wife, Anna, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lockheed Martin and other contractors in March and claimed, among other allegations, that the Raptor was "designed, manufactured, distributed and sold with a dangerous and defective oxygen back-up system that did not automatically provide life support or breathable oxygen to the pilot in the event of a malfunction."

Lockheed Martin said at the time the lawsuit was filed that while Jeff Haney's death was a tragedy, the company disagreed with his widow's claims and would fight them in court. Early Tuesday Lockheed Martin confirmed the lawsuit had been settled, but declined to answer any questions about the settlement, citing confidentiality.

As the major civilian partner to the Air Force in the F-22's production, Lockheed Martin officials make up part of the F-22 Combined Test Group -- the same group that wrote the March 2000 memo.

When ABC News contacted Lockheed Martin last week about the F-22 life support concerns raised in the memo, a spokesperson for the company said, "Since the beginning of the F-22 program, Lockheed Martin has and continues to support the U.S. Air Force's requirements to ensure the F-22 meets their expectations on availability, performance and reliability, and to enhance the aircraft's capabilities to address emerging and proliferating threats."

The spokesperson said that Lockheed Martin "fully supports the Air Force's decision regarding the automatic emergency back-up oxygen system and has no further comment."

The Air Force contends that the original warning document did not explicitly "specify a need for a back-up oxygen system," despite the suggested plenum and second source of "reliable" oxygen, but said the service is adding an automatic back-up now because it is "a prudent step to further reduce risk of interrupted oxygen flow to the pilot."

Jennifer Haney said such a prudent step had been taken far too late.

"It was 12 years ago. That's 10 years before Jeff died that they could've done something and they did nothing," she said. "They knew there was a problem with the jet."

The Air Force does not expect Lockheed Martin to have outfitted the first batch of F-22s with the new automatic back-up oxygen system until next spring. Until then, the Air Force plans to begin loosening strict flight restrictions placed on the planes by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in March.

Though they were officially "combat ready" beginning in December 2005, none of the $420 million-a-pop F-22 Raptors have ever been sent to war.

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