June 6, 2012 -- The same major defense contractor that is being sued by the wife of a dead Air Force pilot for allegedly making "defective" F-22 fighter jets has been awarded nearly $20 million from the U.S. government to install an automatic emergency backup system on the troubled plane -- a system that the pilot's family says would've saved his life in the first place.
The Air Force announced late Tuesday that F-22 manufacturer Lockheed Martin won a $19 million contract to replace the manual oxygen backup system with an automatic one on America's fleet of stealth F-22 Raptor fighter jets, already the most expensive fighters in history at an estimated $420 million each. The contract marks the second time the Air Force has awarded Lockheed Martin a multi-million dollar deal to help resolve a safety problem with the plane it developed.
The announcement came a month after an ABC News "Nightline" investigation into the F-22 -- a plane that despite its sophistication has never been used in combat -- found that unexplained problems with the plane's oxygen system had caused pilots in at least 25 incidents since 2008 to experience symptoms of oxygen deprivation in mid-air and had contributed to the death of veteran F-22 pilot Capt. Jeff Haney.
Haney was killed in a crash in Alaska in November 2010 shortly after a malfunction in the plane shut off his oxygen system and he failed to activate the manual backup system currently used in the stealth jets.
An extended investigation report on the crash obtained by ABC News through a Freedom of Information Act request revealed that the Air Force concluded Haney was distracted by his inability to breathe and was therefore at fault for the crash, even though the Air Force acknowledged the unexplained malfunction and admitted that the manual backup system activation ring that Haney would have relied on would have been difficult to locate and properly deploy.
Jeff's wife, Anna, filed suit in mid-March 2012 against Lockheed Martin and several other major defense contractors involved in the plane's production for wrongful death, alleging the planes are "dangerous and defective." Lockheed Martin told ABC News at the time that while Haney's death was a tragedy, the company "does not agree" with Anna Haney's claims and would fight them in court.
Had Haney been in a plane with an automatic oxygen backup system, he would still be alive today, his sister and family spokesperson, Jennifer Haney, told ABC News in an exclusive interview.
"It would've saved Jeff's life," she said after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the Air Force to speed up the implementation of the new system last month. "I can't believe [the Air Force] thought to begin with that that system that they had was sufficient... That, to me, was just ignorant."
Tuesday's announcement also marks the second time the Air Force has agreed to pay Lockheed Martin millions to help with safety concerns surrounding the plane. In September 2011, just days after the Air Force lifted a five month fleet-wide grounding of the F-22s, the Air Force awarded Lockheed a nearly $25 million contract for services including their assistance in investigating the mystery oxygen problems.
But millions of dollars later, the mystery remains. On the same day Panetta ordered the Air Force to expedite installation of the backup system, he also ordered the Air Force to corral the planes and restrict their missions so they are always near a landing strip, just in case something goes wrong again.
The jets are still on forward deployment, however, and the Air Force claims that neither the mystery problem nor the flight restrictions have curbed F-22 operations. The service has long maintained that while they are aggressively investigating the cause of the apparent oxygen deprivation and have taken a number of measures to ensure pilot safety, the oxygen-related safety incidents themselves are exceedingly rare – 25 known instances compared to the thousands of successful flights flown.
The new automatic backup system is scheduled to begin appearing in planes in December but will not be installed on the entire fleet until 2014, according to the Air Force.