Honor Captain Jeff Haney

January 25, 2012.

A month ago the US Air Force blamed the pilot for a crash, even though the F-22 he was flying had cut off his oxygen suply prior to the crash. I was outraged because it seemed like Air Force brass was protecting the flawed F-22 program at the expense of the reputation of a dead pilot. I thought that the pilot deserved more respect than that.

So I decided to try to talk to the general who made the report, so he would know that the American people were upset at this disrespect shown to a pilot. After some phone pong, I got as close as a major in the general's staff, who directed me to a PR guy.

I wish I had written down the public relations guy's name, he was great. He himself had been a pilot, and he was knowledgable about the case (he had read the accident report). He assumed that I was probably a reporter, and didn't believe me when I said I was just a concerned civilian, which was fine with both of us. I guess he was right, since I'm writing about it now.

His argument was that the available evidence indicated that the pilot had stopped paying attention to his flight instruments, even though he had only been without oxygen for about a minute. The evidence also indicates the pilot was conscious. So it basically points to some sort of panic response, in which the pilot focused on a single issue to the exclusion of all others, which will kill you pretty quickly even in a fully functional F-22.

This stuff fascinates me so you might want to skip the next 5 paragraphs if you aren't interested in the details.

I wasn't exactly convinced but I read the accident report, and there was a lot to justify that explanation. Basically, there are a variety of relatively benign malfunctions which can cause the airplane to cut off the pilot's oxygen supply. Then the standard procedure requires the pilot to implement one of two corrections. First, he can turn on the back-up oxygen system. Second, he can descend to an altitude where there is enough natural air, and take off his mask.

Captain Haney attempted both. He set the plane in a dive that would take 63 seconds before he would need to pull back on the stick to prevent running into the ground. Then he spent 49 seconds futzing with the backup oxygen system, which was basically inoperable due to factors totally outside of his control (poor cockpit design, excessive night and winter gear on the pilot, etc). Then he returned his attention to flying and started to pull up, in plenty of time. So he was obviously still conscious at the end of it, because the black box recorded a textbook attempt to recover from the dive.

The problem is that during those 49 seconds, in order to see the misdesigned backup oxygen system while wearing all this gear, he had to twist his whole body in the cramped cockpit. And while he was squirming around, the black box shows that he bumped the flight controls, causing the dive to steepen even further. It became a 48 second dive, instead of a 63 second dive. He didn't notice that this had happened, and by the time he pulled back he was too close to the ground and the plane impacted the ground while he was pulling back. The margin is literally that close, by the way, if he had looked away from the backup oxygen system one second earlier, he probably would not have hit the ground.

So my outrage was correct, I think. The plane suffered a mechanical failure. Then a whole chain of design failures made it impossible for the pilot to reliably activate the backup oxygen system, which he was told to do in training. All these design failures were foreseeable errors in cockpit design. The F-22 engineers are clearly responsible for killing this guy. In particular, I can't believe that they have the pilot wearing night-vision goggles instead of using some sort of heads-up night-vision. The night-vision goggles make it physically impossible for the pilot to monitor the flight instruments and futz with the backup oxygen system at the same time. It gives him literal tunnel vision ("channelized attention" is the particular flaw they assigned to Captain Haney).

But the accident report is correct as well. If Captain Haney had given up on the impossible backup oxygen system, and instead just taken off his mask once he reached a suitable altitude, he would have probably survived (assuming the undiagnosed failure that caused the initial problem didn't have other effects, which is a big assumption). Even though the plane was obviously shafting him hardcore, a different (and not particularly difficult) set of actions on his part might have permitted him to survive.

I didn't know what to do with this contradiction until my mom happened to remind me of a story in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. Wolfe describes the attitude of test pilots, as their friends are killed on a regular schedule. In order to cope, to convince themselves to get in the cockpit of yet another over-powered under-tested contraption, they told themselves this little story:

John died because he failed to react to an obvious situation. The situation is so obvious that I would certainly have noticed it, and having noticed it, I wouldn't have done the boneheaded thing John did. I miss John, but he must not have had the right stuff or he wouldn't have died. I have the right stuff, so it's safe and justifiable for me to remain in the rocket plane program.

Wolfe reports the attitude is nearly universal. In other words, before John died, he had exactly the same attitude. From the outside, you might say this is irrational, since obviously people who think they have the right stuff are dying all the time so you must be stupid to trust it. However, if you really want to fly these machines, it's not a stupid attitude at all, it's just a reasonable technique to manage stress and fear.

So I've become convinced that the best way to honor Captain Haney is exactly the one that was chosen by the accident investigation board. The lead investigator, General James S. Browne, was also an F-22 pilot. I've become convinced that if General Browne and Captain Haney swapped positions, Haney would have come to the same conclusion about the cause of Browne's death. It's just the way fighter jocks think. They love the F-22, and they are eager to accept the associated risks. They may be a little bit in denial about the situation, but that's just the way of it -- anyone who has been in love can understand that.

I think it's fine for civilians to attack the Air Force's excessive affection for the F-22 on a number of practical grounds. But disrespecting the pilots who have died is not one of the problems with the program.