ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The Air Force is replacing handles that engage the F-22 Raptor fighter jet's emergency oxygen system after pilots reported feeling lightheaded and the death of a captain whose $143 million aircraft took a nosedive into a mountain range in Alaska.
Capt. Jeffrey Haney was killed in November 2010 during a night mission about 100 miles north of Anchorage. An accident investigation found that the plane's controls and switches contributed to the crash, particularly an emergency oxygen system activation ring on the back edge of the ejection seat.
The report found that the two-step process to manually activate the system required the pilot to pull the green ring up and out of the retaining slot and then pull it directly forward. The Air Force says the latter move may have the same force as pulling a 40- or more pound weight.
While the ring is attached to the seat by a lanyard, if it is dropped it can fall between the seats, making it difficult to retrieve, especially if the pilot is flying at night and wearing bulky winter clothing.
The problem with the system was identified by an independent scientific advisory board that studied the jet's safety issues. It was identified as one of the critical items to be fixed, according to public affairs at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, which came up with the new, safer handles.
The modification makes it easier for the pilot to access the handle, the military says. The Air Force has ordered 200 handles at a cost of $47 each. They have already been installed in Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson's 40 F-22s, the Anchorage base that Haney, 31, was attempting to return to when he crashed during a night-time training mission.
The new handles also provide a better grip, especially when the pilot is wearing cold weather gear, according to information provided by Luke Air Force Base.
Haney's widow has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Lockheed Martin Corp. that claims the plane's onboard oxygen delivery system, among other things, is defective.
The lawsuit also says the mechanism for activating the emergency backup oxygen system is underneath and behind the pilot and impossible to reach while flying at supersonic speeds.
The lawsuit says the Lockheed Martin plane "did not safely or properly provide breathable oxygen to the pilot operating the aircraft."
Investigators found that the on-board oxygen generating system on Haney's plane automatically stopped working after air leaks were detected in the ducts of both engines.
The report says airflow would have stopped to the pilot's mask, causing severe restricted breathing. But, it says, that instead of activating the emergency oxygen system, Haney focused on restoring airflow to the mask and keeping the plane from taking a dive.
The report says that Haney's death was not hypoxia-related because he was conscious while struggling with the plane and never activated the emergency oxygen system.
Haney's death was tragic and the company sympathizes with the family, Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Stephanie Stinn said Tuesday.
"We are aware that a complaint that makes a variety of claims associated with the accident has been filed with the court in Cook County, IL. We do not agree with those allegations and we will respond to them through the appropriate legal process," she said in an email.
The Air Force's entire fleet was placed on temporary stand-down last summer and an investigation ensued after numerous pilots reported lightheadedness and other symptoms consistent with not receiving enough oxygen. The planes were returned to service in mid-September, but there have been more reports of hypoxia-like events.
Three F-22 pilots at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson experienced "physiological incidents" in February, said base spokeswoman Corinna M. Jones. In each case, the pilot activated the plane's emergency oxygen system, she said.
John Noonan, a spokesman for Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said that the chairman is still looking for a "smoking gun" to explain what could be problems with the Raptor's oxygen delivery system.
"They are modifying some aircraft with environmental monitors and they have other pilots wearing O2 sensors," Noonan said in an email.
He said baseline blood work has been done of every pilot flying the F-22s "so if they do come back after an oxygen incident, they might be able to see what's changed in that particular pilot."
Besides the Anchorage base, the remainder of the nation's 170 F-22 Raptors are stationed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.; Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.; Holloman Air Force Base, N.M.; and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.