When an F-22 Raptor malfunctioned mid-flight, leading to a crash that killed its pilot, the US Air Force went into damage-control mode. General Norton Schwartz, the chief of staff, insisted there was no way that the oxygen generator on his prized stealth jet — a system widely suspected of being dangerously flawed — caused the crash. And even now that an internal inquiry seems to contradict Schwartz, the US Air Force is still blaming Captain Jeffrey Haney for the crash that cost the pilot his life.
The most important discovery in the US Air Force'sofficial report on the November 10, 2010 accident in Alaska: The oxygen system in Haney's F-22 failed mid-flight. Haney was running out of air. And yet the report concludes the crash was Haney's fault, not the plane's.
That downplayed discovery could be the latest evidence of a potentially fatal design flaw in the Raptor — and a sign that the world's most fearsome jet fighter probably hasn't moved past its recent safety-related groundings. In any event, the Alaska crash was a major embarrassment in a long chain of them for the radar-evading F-22, which costs $US377 million per plane.
The then 170-strong Raptor force was grounded for four months starting in May, following more than a dozen reports of blackouts and disorientation by pilots, possibly consequences of oxygen shortages. When investigators failed to identify the root cause of the problem, the US Air Force ordered the F-22s back into the air — only to briefly sideline them again in October following yet another complaint by an out-of-breath pilot.
In Haney's case, the so-called On-Board Oxygen Generating System, or OBOGS, was at the very least a critical link in a chain of errors that sent his F-22 hurtling to the ground. And while the OBOGS failure on Haley's jet could, in theory, have no connection to all those air-deprived pilots, it seems more likely to us that the crash and the oxygen deprivation are somehow related. It seems implausible that a crash involving a failing oxygen generator would have nothing to do with widespread reports of air shortages by other pilots.
Haney's problem started when a system that channels air from the F-22's engines began leaking, initiating an automatic safeguard that forced air-dependent systems, including the OBOGS, to shut down. According to the report, which is based on an examination of the Raptor's black box and wreckage, Haney tried to turn on his emergency oxygen, contained in a bottle wedged beside the ejection seat.
Apparently while fumbling with a tiny green ring that a pilot pulls to start the oxygen flow, Haney didn't notice that his aircraft had rolled over and pointed towards the ground. "It was most likely the [mission pilot focused] his attention on restoring airflow to his oxygen mask," the report states.
Three seconds before striking the ground, Haney apparently realised his error and tried to pull up. But it was too late. The F-22 plowed into the snowy earth, digging a deep crater, throwing debris almost half a kilometre and killing Haney instantly.
Amazingly, the Air Force blames the accident on pilot error. But the same report also praises Haney as "one of the top pilots in the squadron", undermining the conclusion that the crash must have been his fault. The report mentions that investigators considered the possibility that Haney briefly blacked out, just like some of the pilots who reported oxygen shortages. But the fact that Haney tried to pull up in the final seconds of his life rules out a black-out, the report claims.
Which means in this case, the OBOGS's failure only created the conditions leading to Haney's loss of control. In the cases that prompted the Raptor groundings, the OBOGS apparently directly caused pilot disorientation. That distinction was apparently enough for Schwartz to clear the oxygen-generator entirely in Haney's death. But if one of the top pilots in the 525th Fighter Squadron didn't have enough oxygen to fly his plane, that distinction offers cold comfort to every other fighter jock who'll have to climb into the cockpit.
Schwartz's exoneration of Haney's F-22 doesn't mean the flying branch is any closer to figuring out the other Raptor-related air shortages. The US Air Force has paid F-22-maker Lockheed Martin $US24 million to, among other things, figure out the Raptor's oxygen problem and fix it. So far, no luck.
In the meantime, Lockheed has finished the 196th and final F-22 after 14 years of production. Each of those planes "is a reflection of the dedication, hard work and professionalism of our workforce," company vice president Jeff Babione said, commemorating the last jet's roll-out. But if you can't breathe while flying them, well, apparently that's your fault.
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