LOS ANGELES -- In a long- awaited report, the Air Force blamed the pilot for a controversial fatal crash in the Alaskan wilderness last year in the military's most expensive fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor.
The report raised questions among critics who said the Air Force frequently blames pilots for accidents when there are hardware and software malfunctions that also play a major role.
An Air Force accident investigation board issued a report that said Capt. Jeff "Bong" Haney, 31, was at fault when his F-22 crashed south of the Denali Highway near Cantwell during a nighttime test mission in November 2010.
Investigators came to that conclusion despite finding that the aircraft's air intakes had malfunctioned and caused an automatic shutdown of various systems -- including the main oxygen supply -- which cut off air to Haney's mask.
The report found that Haney's oxygen supply was stopped automatically after the onboard computers detected an air leak in the engine bay. The aircraft system shut down the oxygen system to protect itself from further damage, as designed.
To save himself and the plane, Haney should have engaged an "emergency oxygen system" by pulling a green ring located under his seat by his left thigh or by simply taking off his mask, the report said.
Instead Haney, flying about the speed of sound above a snow-covered valley, tried to slow down and descend in an attempt to get himself air, the report said. When that didn't work, Haney became disoriented and his aircraft began to roll into an inadvertent dive that he was too slow to pull out of, the report said.
Haney's "channelized attention" to get himself oxygen through his mask instead of engaging the emergency system led to factors that contributed to the crash, the report said.
Haney, known to be a highly skilled fighter pilot, crashed about 140 miles north of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in the Talkeetna Mountains, the Air Force said.
Brig. Gen. James S. Browne, president of the accident investigation board, wrote: "By clear and convincing evidence, I find the cause of the mishap was (Haney's) failure to recognize and initiate a timely dive recovery due to a channelized attention, breakdown of visual scan, and unrecognized spatial disorientation.
"By the preponderance of evidence, I also find organizational training issues, inadvertent operations, personal equipment interface, and controls/switches were factors that substantially contributed to the mishap."
Winslow T. Wheeler, a defense budget specialist and frequent Pentagon critic at the Center for Defense Information, said that blaming the pilot because he failed to react to the air problem in a manner that would have averted the crash is like "blaming the driver of a car when the brakes fail and he goes over a cliff because of the accumulated speed."
According to the report, the Air Force's investigation was completed in July. It wasn't made public until Thursday.
The report is the latest in an ongoing saga over the problem-plagued F-22, each of which costs an estimated $412 million, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
In all, the F-22 has experienced seven major crashes with two fatalities since it entered service in 2005. The supersonic, stealthy jet has never been used in combat.
This year, a government safety investigation grounded the entire fleet of 170 F-22s for more than four months after pilots had reported oxygen problems in more than a dozen incidents since April 2008.
The fleet reentered service in September, but several F-22s were temporarily grounded in October after an incident at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
Despite its problems, the sleek diamond-winged jet, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., is considered the most advanced fighter jet in the world. It has state-of-the-art engines with thrust-vectoring nozzles that can move up and down, making the plane exceptionally agile.
An F-22 can reach supersonic speeds without using afterburners, enabling the plane to fly faster and farther. It's also packed with cutting-edge radar and sensors, allowing a pilot to identify, track and shoot an enemy aircraft before it can detect the F-22.
Two decades ago, the U.S. government planned to buy 648 of the fighters for $139 million apiece. But that order was slashed again and again until recently retired Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ended the purchase in 2009 at 188 planes -- the last of which was built this week by Lockheed in its Marietta, Ga., facilities.
By W.J. HENNIGAN
Los Angeles Times