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Cover-Up Contributed to Osprey Crash, Panel Says

April 05, 2001|From the Washington Post

JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — The crash of a V-22 Osprey aircraft that killed four Marines here in December was caused by a design flaw that had been known for months but went largely uncorrected, according to pilots who participated in an official investigation of the accident.

The pilots, all current or former officers in the Marines' first Osprey squadron, said the design flaw in the aircraft's hydraulic system was compounded by a software glitch that could have been detected by more rigorous testing. But they said they believe both problems slipped by because the Marine Corps wanted to win Pentagon funding for full production of the plane.

That approval, they said, would have freed up money to go back to the drawing board and re-engineer the hydraulics and software. The production decision was postponed after two Osprey crashes last year killed 23 Marines, raising questions about the safety of the aircraft.

The Marine Corps' report on the second crash is expected to be made public as soon as today. It is unusual for participants in a military "mishap board" to discuss their views, especially before the release of a crash report. But several of the board's 12 members agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. They said they were ready to speak out because they increasingly distrust the Corps' leadership and worry that some of their conclusions might be omitted or minimized in the public report.

"People who have been heroes all my life are no longer my heroes," one board member said, conveying his dismay in the generals overseeing development of the Osprey, a novel aircraft that takes off like a helicopter and then tilts its rotors forward to fly like a conventional airplane.

While "the Marine Corps has never let me down" in more than 15 years of service, another pilot added, "this is the first time I've seen the Marine Corps lose control."

After the December crash, the Corps grounded its initial fleet of eight remaining Ospreys and the secretary of Defense appointed an independent panel to review the program.

The release of the accident report comes just as the review panel, headed by retired Marine Gen. John Dailey, is preparing its findings and recommendations, which could decide the fate of the Osprey. The Marine Corps has made the development of the V-22 a top priority and proposes to buy 360 of the planes in a $40-billion plan to replace its aging, Vietnam-era helicopters.

Within weeks of the Dec. 11 crash, Marine investigators suspected that it was caused by a hydraulics failure combined with a software glitch. But pilots on the mishap board say they believe senior Marine officials--including at least a handful of generals who oversee Marine aviation--knew about the hydraulics problem long before the crash and postponed addressing it. They say they are certain that paperwork about the design flaw was sent up the chain of command.

A Marine spokesman, Maj. Patrick Gibbons, said the Corps would not comment on the pilots' allegations while the accident report is pending. "If there are concerns on the part of our Marines, we want to deal with those, and we're confident that the investigation has addressed all the relevant issues," he said.

Gibbons added that any mistrust among squadron members "is a subjective thing."

"Assuring them and ourselves that we have thoroughly reviewed the Osprey program is the very reason we got the Defense Department's inspector general involved and the independent review panel," the spokesman said.

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