[ Editor's Note: The spelling of the F-22A pilot's name in the last paragraph has been corrected. ]
Inside the Pentagon -- The Defense Department's inspector general has launched an independent assessment of an Air Force report that blamed a fatal F-22A Raptor crash on the pilot despite a malfunction in the aircraft's oxygen-supply system.
Randolph Stone, the deputy inspector general for policy and oversight, sent a Jan. 25 memo to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley announcing the new assessment of the Accident Investigation Board report on the Nov. 16, 2010, crash in Alaska.
Although the Air Force report on the crash found the trouble began when a bleed-air leak in the engine bay cut off the pilot's oxygen, it concluded there was "clear and convincing evidence" that the crash was caused by the pilot's "failure to recognize and initiate a timely dive recovery due to channelized attention, breakdown of visual scan and unrecognized spatial disorientation." Brig. Gen. James Browne, the board's president, signed the report.
Since the Air Force made the report public two months ago, the family and friends of the deceased pilot, Capt. Jeff Haney, have accused the Air Force of scapegoating him. A Facebook tribute page for the pilot is filled with strong criticisms of the board's conclusions.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has struggled in recent months to determine exactly why F-22A pilots have continued to experience oxygen-deprivation problems, a mystery that has raised concerns on Capitol Hill.
The inspector general's assessment will examine whether the Accident Investigation Board properly followed the Air Force's investigation procedures. Further, the assessment will check whether the board's conclusions are supported by "evidence of record consistent with standards of proof" in those rules, according to Stone's memo. Inside the Pentagon reviewed a copy of the memo.
Bridget Serchak, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said the IG's office made the decision to launch the assessment. Given such assessments are intended to be "thorough and comprehensive," there is no specific projected completion date, she said. The IG has the authority to investigate, audit, assess or review any DOD operation, contract, personnel, report or policy, she said.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has expressed concern about instances in which F-22A pilots experienced hypoxia-like symptoms while flying the high-tech fighter jet. In a floor speech last December about the military-industrial complex, McCain said problems with the Raptor's On-Board Oxygen Generating system caused pilots to get dizzy or, in some cases, lose consciousness from lack of oxygen.
The problem led the Air Force to ground its entire Raptor fleet for roughly four months last year before resuming flights.
"While this grounding was lifted earlier this year, exactly why F-22 pilots have been experiencing hypoxia remains unknown -- but similar unexplained incidents continue," McCain warned in his speech.
The F-22A grounding, from late April through September 2011, was "due to suspected contamination problems associated with the aircraft environmental control system and associated onboard oxygen generation system," according to the latest annual report from J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's operational testing chief. Gilmore's report was released last month.
Although the Accident Investigation Board found that a failure of the On-Board Oxygen Generating system restricted Haney's breathing -- creating an experience like suffocation -- the board's report ruled out hypoxia as a cause of the crash. But the board's report cited the tricky two-step process required to activate the emergency oxygen system as one of the factors that contributed to the crash. Haney did not activate that system, according to the report. -- Christopher J. Castelli