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

Dead pilot's sister tells ABC News the Air Force "let my brother die."

ByABC News
August 14, 2012, 11:15 AM

Aug. 14, 2012 — -- The Air Force and major defense contractors were warned about a design flaw in the F-22 Raptor fighter jet more than a decade before it directly contributed to the death of an American pilot, according to an internal Air Force document obtained exclusively by ABC News.

Air Force officials also revealed that early in the plane's development, in order to save money on the $79 billion program, the service had decided against a safety measure that would've addressed the flaw -- the same safety measure the military is now paying millions to install and that the pilot's family insists would have saved his life.

"It's really nice of the Air Force to have known about this 12 years ago and then let my brother die," Jennifer Haney, sister of the late Capt. Jeff Haney and family spokesperson, told ABC News.

Late Monday Lockheed Martin and Boeing confirmed the companies had settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the Haney family for an undisclosed sum. The suit, filed in March, had alleged the companies knowingly provided the Air Force with a "dangerous" and "defective" aircraft. The Air Force was not named as a defendant in the suit.

The settlement came just days after ABC News requested comment from the Air Force and Lockheed Martin concerning a memo written by a combined Air Force and civilian contactor test group in March 2000 that warned of an "operational deficiency" in the F-22s life support system -- a flaw that was only partially addressed in the last decade and one that was explicitly referred to in the Haney lawsuit.

Capt. Haney was 31 years old when he was killed in a crash approximately a minute after a malfunction in his F-22 cut off his oxygen supply during a routine training exercise in Alaska in November 2010. An Air Force investigation blamed the crash on Haney, saying he failed to properly fly the plane or deploy a manual emergency back-up oxygen system while experiencing a sense "similar to suffocation."

"The Air Force and Lockheed both knew of the design flaws associated with the [F-22 life support system] for ten years before and failed to correct this deadly flaw that killed a pilot, destroyed a half-billion dollar aircraft and placed all F-22 pilots and these aircraft at unacceptable risk," a source in the F-22 program told ABC News.

READ Exclusive: Family Demands Truth in F-22 Fighter Pilot's Death

'Unacceptable…May Result in Pilot Debilitation or Fatality'

The document, written by a member of the Combined Test Force at California's Edwards Air Force Base in March 2000 and updated in 2002, described a problem with the design of the plane's Environmental Control System (ECS), which is charged with regulating several systems in the plane including the conditions in the cockpit. During certain specific high-altitude maneuvers, the ECS system would shut down and it was built so that if it failed, it would spark a cascade effect that would also cut off the pilot's primary oxygen supply.

Under the heading "Impact If Not Fixed," the test group member wrote, "Real-world failure of [the oxygen system] due to ECS shutdown is unacceptable. ECS failure and the subsequent loss of supplemental breathing oxygen may result in pilot debilitation or fatality due to either altitude hypoxia [oxygen deprivation] or decompression sickness in the event of cabin depressurization."

"Investigate and take corrective action," the 2000 document says. "Suggest repairing the ECS system so it will provide continuous, adequate service throughout the flight envelope. Suggest providing a reliable source of bleed air for [the oxygen system] in the event of ECS failure... [C]onsider addition of pilot breathing air plenum to fill gaps when [the oxygen system] is not operating, as during ECS shutdown."

A plenum, as described by former Marine Corps fighter pilot and ABC News consultant Steve Ganyard, is a common feature in legacy fighter planes akin to a tank within the primary oxygen system that could hold excess air for use in the case of crisis.

The Air Force was able to "mitigate" the instances of ECS shut down due to the high-altitude maneuvers to "an acceptable level of operational risk," the service said, but it never provided a secondary "reliable source" of air for the oxygen system nor did it add a plenum as a back-up. Instead, the Air Force directed pilots to a manual emergency oxygen system in the event of an ECS shutdown.

That emergency system -- currently installed on the 180-odd F-22s -- gets oxygen directly from a separate oxygen bottle and can only be activated after a pilot locates and pulls a small ring tucked into the corner of the cockpit, a process the Air Force admits is difficult even under controlled conditions and during which the pilot would not be able to breathe.

At the time the memo was written, the test group said the delay between the primary oxygen system being cut off and the pilot being able to activate the manual emergency system was "an acceptable safety risk for flight test operations."