TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE -- Investigators in oversized white hazardous materials suits were combing the site Friday where an F-22 Raptor crashed a day earlier.
Air Force officials said a thorough investigation was being conducted in accordance with standard Air Force and Department of Defense policy, but military officials quickly dismissed one theory. Air Combat Command released a statement Friday afternoon saying despite initial media speculation, no indications point to the life support oxygen system leading to this incident or playing any role in Tyndall's F-22 crash.
The F-22 has been plagued with a string of incidents of pilots experiencing hypoxia symptoms. The Air Force has contended a valve inside the flight gear of an F-22 pilot allowed a "pressure garment" vest to inflate when it shouldn't, causing hypoxia symptoms in the pilot. Earlier this year, Air Force officials said they fixed the problem.
Few other details into the investigation emerged Friday; U.S. 98, which traverses the base, was closely guarded.
A safety team at Tyndall began interviewing witnesses after the incident, according to U.S. Air Force Col. David Graff, commander of the 325th Fighter Wing at Tyndall.
"Right now, our number one priority is the safety of our airmen and all involved as we secure the scene of the incident," Graff said.
Explosive ordnance disposal airmen made a sweep of the area for any parts of the aircraft that may be explosive, he said.
Graff said potential environmental and biological hazards will be addressed. Most modern aircraft are made of composite fibers, which can create health concerns for people on the scene when a plane catches fire. Tyndall personnel have worn protective gear, and they will continue to do so until the immediate site of the crash is deemed safe, Graff said.
He added that evidence will be photographed and tagged to preserve evidence for the official safety investigation board members.
Pierre Sprey, the co-designer of the F-16, one of the predecessors to the F-22, said a number of things can go wrong with an F-22.
"It is such a complicated machine that there are a zillion things that can go wrong, an oxygen problem being only one," Sprey said. "There is also pilot error, there are computer malfunctions and there are an assortment of things."
Sprey also said the lack of flying time could have a detrimental impact on a pilot's ability to fly the F-22.
"To be a proficient ace you need 35 to 40 hours a month," Sprey said.
The Air Force said the pilot, who is part of the 43rd Fighter Squadron, was conducting a routine training mission when first responders were alerted to a problem via an in-flight emergency call and were on scene fighting the fire within two minutes of the crash.
The pilot is no longer under medical care and is doing well, Tyndall officials said. As of late Friday, Tyndall had yet to release the name of the pilot, and questions regarding flying hours were not answered.
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office estimated the cost of the F-22 at more than $400 million, although Air Force officials have estimated the cost of each F-22 at about $190 million.