May 16, 2012 -- The flight restrictions and safety measures for the F-22 Raptor fighter jet ordered by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may help protect other pilots, but they come far too late to save the life of one of America's best airmen, the pilot's family said.
Jennifer Haney, the sister of the late Capt. Jeff Haney, told ABC News that the new measures announced Tuesday -- in particular the expedited implementation of an automatic emergency back-up oxygen system -- would've meant the difference between life and death for her brother, had they been ordered more than a year ago.
"It would've saved Jeff's life," said Jennifer Haney, who acts as family spokesperson. "My brother would be alive if this would've been something that was in the F-22 from the get-go."
"I can't believe [the Air Force] thought to begin with that that system that they had was sufficient enough... That, to me, was just ignorant," she said.
Haney's crash was the first F-22 fatality believed to be linked to the plane's on board oxygen generation system, but it came more than two years after the first reported incident of a pilot experiencing "hypoxia-like symptoms" in mid-air, possibly due to a lack of oxygen.
A recent ABC News "Nightline" investigation into the F-22 Raptor found that in addition to Haney's death, possible problems with the plane's oxygen system have caused pilots to experience oxygen deprivation symptoms such as dizziness and disorientation in mid-air in at least 25 incidents since 2008. In one case, another pilot apparently got so disoriented that his plane dropped down and clipped treetops before he was able to save himself.
Air Force Blames Capt. Haney in Death
Capt. Jeff Haney had just completed a routine training mission in Alaska in November 2010 when a malfunction suddenly caused his plane to shut off his oxygen supply. Haney rolled into a sharp dive and, a little over a minute later, crashed into the Alaskan wilderness at faster than the speed of sound.
After a lengthy investigation, an Air Force board acknowledged the malfunction but blamed Haney for the crash, saying he was too distracted by his inability to breathe to fly the plane properly. Likely, the Air Force report said, Haney was attempting to deploy the manual back-up oxygen system, which is only activated if the pilot can reach a small ring tucked into a corner of the cockpit, and didn't realize he was flying nearly straight down for the better part of a minute.
While Jennifer Haney disputes the Air Force's conclusions -- citing evidence that she said shows Capt. Haney was likely passed out for at least part of his fatal dive -- she said today that either way, an automatic back-up system would've saved her brother.
"He had the perfect storm of things go wrong that day, but if he would've had automatic back-up oxygen come on, yeah, I think Jeff would've been fine," Jennifer Haney said.
Capt. Haney's wife, Anna, is currently suing the plane's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, as well as other major defense contractors involved in the plane's production for wrongful death, claiming the companies knowingly sold a broken airplane to the Air Force that put her husband's life in danger. Lockheed Martin said in a statement that Capt. Haney's loss was "tragic" but the company disagrees with the allegations in the suit.
Air Force Waited Months for Recommendation on Back-Up System
When asked why the Air Force had not considered installing an automatic back-up emergency system earlier, an Air Force spokesperson told ABC News Wednesday that the service had waited for the results of a scientific board study into the mysterious "hypoxia-like symptoms" -- but that board was not ordered to look into the F-22 issues until June 2011, more than six months after Haney's crash and more than three years after the first "hypoxia-like" incident.
When the board did release its findings in March, of the 14 recommendations made to the Air Force, the first was to "develop and install an automatic Back-up Oxygen Supply to the F-22 life support system." The Air Force officials said then they agreed and made plans to implement the system.
Under Panetta's new directive, the Air Force was told to expedite the installation of the system, which the Pentagon said is still months away.
Panetta also directed flight distance restrictions for the jets meant to keep them in close proximity to any possible landing strips in case of mid-air emergencies, Pentagon spokesperson George Little said Wednesday. In Alaska, where Capt. Haney had flown, that means other older planes are taking over long-distance training missions that the F-22s are no longer allowed to fly.
The stealth F-22 Raptor, at an estimated $420 million each, is America's most expensive fighter jet. Despite going combat ready in late 2005, the plane has yet to take off for a single combat mission. The whole fleet, estimated to cost U.S. taxpayers up to $79 billion, was grounded for nearly five months last year as the Air Force investigated the mystery problem, but a solution was never found and the Air Force has cautiously allowed the planes to fly since.