The Pentagon's Inspector General said today that the Air Force didn't have the evidence to blame an F-22 Raptor pilot for the crash that took his life after his plane malfunctioned -- a finding that comes months after the pilot's sister said she believed that the Air Force was more interested in protecting a $79 billion program than the lives of its airmen.
The report, published today on the Inspector General's website, was the culmination of a year-long review of the Air Force's investigation into the crash that killed Capt. Jeff Haney while he was on a training mission in Alaska in 2010. The controversial crash, in which Haney's oxygen was cut off completely just prior to impact, was the subject of an ABC News' "Nightline" investigation last May.
After investigating the incident for more than a year, the Air Force released its crash report in December 2011 that said that while Haney likely suffered a "sense similar to suffocation" right before he died, he was still to blame for the crash for being too distracted to fly the plane properly.
The new IG report, the result of the first major crash investigation review undertaken by the Inspector General since the mid-1990s, 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.
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.
'To Them, Jeff Was a Number... But Those Jets Are Worth a Lot of Money'
On Nov. 16, 2010 Haney had just completed a routine training exercise when a malfunction in the plane cut off his oxygen completely. 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.
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, Haney's sister Jennifer 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."
"To them, Jeff was a number, it feels like sometimes. But those jets are worth a lot of money," she said.
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.
The Pentagon Inspector General appears to agree it's a possibility.
"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 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.