Lead Marine pilots disciplined in fatal Osprey crash

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon said Thursday that it has taken disciplinary action against two pilots who contributed to the April crash of a V-22 Osprey, which killed 19 Marines at a civilian airstrip in Arizona.

An internal review board stripped the two unidentified pilots of their ability to serve as aircraft commanders on any Marine Corps plane for six months, and they will be forced to qualify anew for that designation, Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle said. The reprimanded pilots were in the Osprey that was flying in the lead position ahead of the aircraft that crashed.

In its final report on the deadly crash, the military said a combination of mistakes by pilots of both the lead and secondary aircraft contributed to the accident.

Those include flying higher than the scheduled flight plan, descending faster than regulations suggest and not aborting the landing when they sensed trouble. An unexpected tailwind was also cited in the report.

The 8,000-page document did not find any mechanical, structural or engineering flaws with the Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. The twin-engine V-22 is a joint product of Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth and Boeing Co. of Ridley Park, Pa.

Gen. McCorkle, who is in charge of Marine aviation, stopped short of labeling pilot error as an official cause of the crash, saying "when someone mentions pilot error to me – I am thinking it was something that was done intentionally, you know, to take a shortcut or something else."

"I've seen a lot of accidents caused by cowboys," he said. "These individuals were both very professional pilots."

He speculated that the pilots of both planes wanted to complete the night mission – a mock evacuation of civilians.

Gen. McCorkle said the Marine Corps plans to highlight the dangers of rapid descents at slow airspeeds during preflight safety lectures for all pilots. Those briefings will emphasize the importance of better coordination among pilots.

The Marine Corps also will explore the possibility of developing a warning system to recognize when an aircraft descends at an unsafe speed, and officials will study the characteristics of the Osprey aircraft to prevent similar accidents.

Gen. McCorkle played down the potential for a warning system, saying he did not consider it feasible.

A spokesman at Bell declined to comment on the Marine Corps' conclusions, citing respect for the families of the men who died. The crash was the worst aviation disaster for the Marines since a 1989 helicopter crash in South Korea that killed 22 people.

The Arizona accident occurred April 8 at a rural airport about 30 miles northwest of Tucson. The Osprey had departed from the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Ariz., and was to have dropped off Marines. According to the report, both Ospreys began their final approach 2,000 feet higher than they had been instructed prior to the mission. Rather than aborting the approach and going around for another try, the lead aircraft attempted a rapid descent.

The second aircraft followed, but encountered problems because of its speedy descent, coupled with slow forward air speed. When it was less than 300 feet above the ground, the plane tilted to the right and suffered from "vortex ring state" – when rotors stall – which caused it to hit the ground nose first. Of the 19 killed, six were Texans.

The pilots of the lead Osprey should have aborted their first landing approach, Gen. McCorkle said. According to the flight data recorder, the co-pilot of that craft said, "If it's not sweet, we can go long if you need to, or you can wave-off ... it's your call."

That said, the crew of the second Osprey should not have followed. The second plane was descending at 2,000 feet per second, more than 2.5 times faster than the maximum safe descent rate.

The first production V-22 was delivered to the Marines in May 1999, and the Corps will have seven by month's end. In all, the Marines are scheduled to receive 360 of the aircraft by 2014. Fifty more are planned for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command.