March 7, 2012 — -- Three months after the Air Force placed blame squarely on an F-22 fighter pilot who died when he crashed in the service's most expensive plane after his oxygen system failed in mid-air, a top Air Force official is apparently backtracking -- saying that the pilot was not blamed and that he did the best he could in the situation he was in.
"We did not assign blame to the pilot," U.S. Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said before a House subcommittee Tuesday when asked about the crash and the troubled F-22 program by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., according to multiple reports. "… This was a complex contingency that he did his best to manage and, in the end, we lost aircraft control."
Schwartz's comments seem to contradict the conclusions an Air Force board reached after an intense, months-long investigation into the November 2010 crash that claimed the life of Capt. Jeff Haney, who the Air Force called an exceptional aviator. Haney crashed in the Alaskan wilderness after a malfunction caused his oxygen system to shut down completely, meaning he suffered "a sense similar to suffocation" in mid-flight, according to the Air Force report.
"The board president found, by clear and convincing evidence, 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 report said, essentially saying Haney was too distracted by not being able to breathe to fly the plane properly. The report also noted other contributing factors in the crash but said it was still a mystery as to what caused the original malfunction.
Moran noted in Tuesday's hearing that the investigation board blamed Haney and said, "There's been a suggestion... saying that the service is trying to protect its fifth-generation fighter and those involved in the program," according to a report by The Air Force Times.
In January, the Pentagon's Inspector General's office informed the Air Force it would be conducting its own review of the Air Force investigation -- the first major review of a military accident investigation in nearly 20 years.
The sophisticated F-22 Raptors, which cost the U.S. government an estimated $77.4 billion, are meant to be among the most advanced fighter planes on the planet. But they have yet to see any combat -- going unused in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya despite becoming combat operational in late 2005 -- and have been plagued with a rare, mysterious oxygen problem.
Last year, the Air Force grounded the entire fleet of planes for nearly five months while the service investigated why, on a dozen separate occasions, pilots experienced "hypoxia-like symptoms" mid-flight. Hypoxia occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen and is characterized by dizziness, confusion, poor judgment and inattentiveness.
But after scouring the planes for the source of the problem, the Air Force was unable to pinpoint any "smoking gun," as Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle put it last week, and cautiously allowed pilots back in the cockpit in September 2011. Since the planes went back in the air, the Air Force has reported another nine incidents of pilots experiencing the "hypoxia-like" symptoms -- leading to a handful of one-day "pauses" in operations at various bases.
An Air Force spokesperson previously told ABC News the Air Force is watching its pilots very closely as they allow the planes to continue flying.
"The bottom line is this airplane is important to the national security and we've got the best minds we can find … we're working hard to both manage the risk and identify the exact cause," Schwartz said Tuesday.