F-22 Mishap: Pilot To Blame, Not Hardware

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Air Force photo

Visualization of night-vision impairment in the F-22 cockpit

The accident investigation into the F-22 that crashed last November is out, and is being read closely by Air Force pilots like myself. According to an article published last week in Air Force Times, the crash has been officially pinned on the dead pilot, Captain Jeff Haney, and not the oxygen system as was originally suspected:

Had Haney not been distracted by trying to breathe, he would have recognized the problem, the report reads. Haney didn’t make any intentional control inputs for some 39 seconds.

For those of you who have never been held responsible for something you did — or did not do — while trying desperately to breathe, welcome to the harsh reality of being a pilot (Read: “being responsible for a $140 million government asset funded by the American taxpayer). 

The “fly it like you stole it” days of early military aviation have long since past. Flight safety is paramount in every aspect of training and mission execution. So yes, a pilot is responsible for the snowball effect of whatever goes wrong when the perfect storm hits.  In the case of Captain Haney, this perfect storm ended tragically, and according to the official report was caused by “channelized attention” due to the following factors:

The life support system which supplies oxygen to the pilot malfunctioned, which caused Haney difficulty breathing. As with every well-designed airplane, a backup system was in place. In the F-22 Raptor’s case, the backup system is a bottle of oxygen, activated by pulling a green ring — which can require more than 40 pounds of tug to activate — located at the pilot’s left thigh. According to the investigation, part of the activation mechanism was improperly installed. Nonetheless, the pilot made apparently vain attempts to activate the backup oxygen system.

The pilot was also flying at night while wearing night vision goggles. The field of view while looking through NVGs is only slightly larger than the size of a quarter held 1/4 of an inch from your eye. While high-tech and cool to look through, they are notorious for causing channelized attention — due to their soda-straw vision — for pilots and tank drivers alike.

With these factors, the jet rolled 240 degrees upside-down — due to unintentional movements of the control stick (in the pilot’s right hand) and rudder pedal (at the pilot’s feet). It sounds to me like that resulted from looking down, and to the left, for a green ring to pull. The impact that resulted from this unintended control input wouldn’t be entirely unlike driving at 1,039 knots (1,195mph) with a headlight out while scrounging for change for some 39 seconds and swerving at 7.4 Gs to avoid an up and coming toll plaza — all while holding your breath.

With the level of accountability placed on the shoulders of today’s pilots, our guys train for the worst-case scenarios and make every effort to mitigate the possibilities of damage to themselves, the jets they fly, the people living on the ground below them, and the resulting swarm of media attention. Despite the most advanced training the world has to offer, even the best of the best can have that one golden BB get through their defenses. No matter the cause of the mishap, my heart goes out to Captain Haney, his friends, and his family.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of Karl Johnson. His views are his alone and do not reflect the opinions of the U.S. military, its branches, or any organization.