Congressman Walter Jones (R-North Carolina) has been on a mission to clear the names of two U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) pilots for more than a decade after they were killed when the MV-22 Osprey they were test flying crashed. In October, Rep. Jones filed a lawsuit demanding the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) hand over all documents regarding the deadly crash that occurred April 8, 2000. The lawsuit followed numerous attempts over the years by the Congressman, including a Freedom of Information Act request in June, to obtain the documents.

In April 2000, Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gruber were piloting the Osprey on one of its last test flights before testing of the aircraft was expected to wrap up later that year. During that same test flight, Lt. Col. Jim Schafer was co-piloting another Osprey and was trailing the one piloted by Brow and Gruber. He watched in horror as the Osprey “lost lift, flipped and plummeted to the ground” as the Marine Corps Times reported. The fiery crash that followed killed Brow, Gruber and 17 other U.S. Marines aboard. The Arizona Daily Star explained that in a press release issued three months later following the legal investigation, the USMC placed blame on the pilots claiming their “drive to accomplish that mission appears to have been the fatal factor.”

Immediately, the pilots’ widows, Trish Brow and Connie Gruber, began working to clear their husbands’ names and restore their honor. Rep. Jones joined the fight in 2002, probing DOD officials and speaking publicly, which included giving several impassioned speeches from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. His persistent requests of the DOD to reexamine the crash paid off and nearly 16 years after the crash DOD Deputy Secretary Robert Work publicly announced that the pilots had been incorrectly blamed for the crash after Work reopened and reviewed the evidence.

While Rep. Jones and the pilots’ families are pleased that honor has been restored to the military aviation pioneers’ names, they still want answers about the dangerous aircraft. These are answers the military so far has refused to give them. The lawsuit specifically names the DOD’s Office of Inspector General, the Navy and the USMC and comes on the heels of several recent, high-profile crashes and incidents involving the Osprey, as we have discussed in previous issues of the Report.

The V-22 Osprey is the tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter and by tilting its rotors 90 degrees, it can fly like an airplane. It is manufactured by Bell Helicopter and Boeing at plants in Texas. The aircraft, also called “The Widowmaker,” has survived decades of design defects, mechanical problems and critics. Even in its infancy during the George H. W. Bush administration, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, despite his staunchest efforts, could not end the program, the Texas Observer reported in an editorial analysis of the Osprey, called Texas’ Deadly $16 Billion Boondoggle.

As Sec. Schafer explained about the April 2000 crash, there were many unknowns about the aircraft and although it should not have been on the fatal test flight, there was immense pressure on everyone involved in developing the revolutionary aircraft. He explained that up until the night of the crash, “there had been so many mechanical flaws that the Marines never even had that many up and running at one time.” Despite the fact that the team of test pilots included some of the USMC’s best, one of the unknowns is what investigators ultimately determined caused one of the deadliest test flights in U.S. military history. That unknown is called “vortex ring state.”

The Osprey’s design increases its risk of experiencing the phenomenon – the aircraft loses altitude too quickly and often results in crash landings. The aircraft’s air filtration system has also been problematic. It is especially prone to malfunctioning in dusty environments including many areas of the Middle East and Persian Gulf where U.S. military forces have been deployed since 2007 when the Osprey became operational.

Just days before Rep. Jones filed the FOIA lawsuit, Righting Injustice reported that another V-22 Osprey crashed in the fourth non-combat related crash since December – two of the crashes were fatal. A 2015 Osprey crash off the coast of Hawaii claimed our clients’ son’s life, Michael J. Determan. Unfortunately, this poorly designed and dangerous aircraft remains operational, putting potentially more lives as risk.

If you need additional information about this subject, contact Mike Andrews, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section at 800-898-2034 or Mike handles aviation litigation, including several cases involving the Osprey.

Sources: Military Times, Marine Corps Times, Arizona Daily Star

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