By DANA LIEBELSON
In the spring of 2000, an MV-22 Osprey carrying 19 Marines crashed in the desert of Arizona during a nighttime training exercise, killing everyone on board. After the Marine Corps hastily announced that the crash was the result of human error, the news made the usual media rounds and then all but disappeared for the next decade.
But for Representative Walter Jones (R-NC), this wasn’t the end of the story, it was only the prelude. After attending the funeral and meeting one of the Osprey pilots’ widows—who insisted that the crash was the result of faulty aircraft design, not pilot error—Jones embarked on a ten-year odyssey that continues to this day: a quest to hold the military accountable, clear the pilots’ names, and fight for the truth.
“Anyone familiar with the accident agrees that the pilots were not at fault,” Jones told POGO in a recent interview. “After speaking with [the widow] Connie Gruber, I promised I would not let this go as long as I’m living.”
Twenty two years ago, when the MV-22 Osprey had its first flight, it was considered a kind of Holy Grail in defense. It was an aircraft that took off and landed like a helicopter, but flew like a plane. But the aircraft was soon wracked with problems, costing the U.S. government a total of $54 billion and 30 lives through development and testing since its launch. It claimed four more lives in Afghanistan in 2010 during the aircraft’s first combat zone crash.
“The Osprey is sort of a poster child for all the things that have been wrong with the defense procurement system over the years,” said Richard Whittle, who authored a book on the Osprey, in a 2010 interview with the Marine Corps Association.
While the cost has been high, supporters of the Osprey say the program has surmounted earlier technical challenges and that its flight envelope—the parameters of performance given certain factors needed for safe flight—are well understood now.
But technical problems with the aircraft and its flight envelope were especially not well understood back in 2000 when the Arizona crash occurred, according to William Lawrence, who was in charge of testing the V-22s from 1985 to 1988. In a letter he wrote to Jones, Lawrence said he was “convinced [the crash] was the result of poor design and possible inadequate training.” He added that the flight crew, composed of Lieutenant Colonel John A. Brow and Major Brooks S. Gruber, “could not have understood the actions necessary to prevent the crash.”
Lawrence’s concerns were backed up by the three Marine investigators who were responsible for establishing findings from the crash. According to their investigation, the “asymmetric vortex ring state” (VRS)—a hazardous condition encountered in helicopters, which can derail a controlled landing—was the cause of the crash. The report said that there was no warning of VRS in the pilots’ manual, and Bell/Boeing didn’t fully test for this “dangerous design flaw.”
“The accident aircraft was under control until the moment the right prop-rotor lost lift, after which the roll was unrecoverable,” said the investigators’ report.
Gruber, the widow of one of the pilots, cited this report in her letter to Jones, which spurred him into action. She pointed out in her letter that, “Oddly enough, my husband received the Meritorious Service Medal even after supposedly causing or contributing to (by means of human factor error) his own death…The presentation of this honorable medal and the blemish left on his reputation by the accident report contradict each other.”
Jones is a soft-spoken man with a cadence that places him squarely in the coastal plains of Eastern North Carolina, where he has been a lifelong resident. The congressional district he represents has a special connection with aviation—it was first in flight at Kitty Hawk. Jones has a history of pursuing personal, righteous issues with the kind of dogged determination usually reserved for winning political campaigns. Last year for example, he threw his political might into honorably discharging Lex, a war dog whose handler was killed in Iraq. He arranged care for the dog’s injuries, then helped the handler’s family adopt him.
“Rep. Jones demonstrates a rare quality on Capitol Hill, he is outraged at injustice and goes against powerful forces to help the powerless,” said Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director. “I wish we had a lot more of his dedication to truth and justice around here.”
Some critics have called Jones’ quests “quixotic”—but speaking to Jones, one gets the impression he takes certain issues to heart and refuses to let them go, quixotism be damned. When POGO asked Jones why he’s taken such a keen interest in the Osprey case, he pointed to a framed sign in his office with a quote from philosopher Voltaire.
“To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe only the truth,” he read out loud.
Specifically, Jones wants the truth of the crash publicly stated by the Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy. He hopes to have the truth published so that the families can use it to set the official record straight—like in cases when editors print that the pilots were at fault.
Jones told POGO that he stumbled upon a Marine Corps history book that alluded to the two pilots being responsible for the Osprey crash. He personally called the publisher in Annapolis to make the correction. He pointed out that he, unfortunately, “doesn’t have time to call every writer.”
Nevertheless, Jones has taken the time to speak with many people familiar with the accident, including families, aviation experts, Jim Schaefer—a Marine who personally witnessed the crash and believes the faulty aircraft was responsible—and General James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps himself. Ray Maybus, the Secretary of the Navy has declined to meet with Jones.
Jones introduced a resolution in 2009 that would clear the pilots of blame, but it got stuck in subcommittee. He said he will introduce another resolution if necessary, but has no current plans to do so.
When POGO asked Jones why he thinks the Navy and the Marine Corps have not changed their official reports, he said: “There’s no reason for it. I can only give you my opinion—that it’s either arrogance or trying to protect somebody that maybe didn’t act in the proper way.”
In September, Jones issued a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which he hopes will reveal a “smoking gun” that will close the case. He has requested all messages, memorandums, text messages, reports, flight documents, statements, and other documentation concerning the crash, from April 8, 2000, to the present. He is also seeking information addressing the VRS issue. He hopes the FOIA request—which he’s encouraging other members of the public to make—will put additional pressure on the Navy and Marine Corps.
If the FOIA request fails to turn up any new information, Jones will likely go back to his usual outlets: indirect negotiations and potentially pushing another resolution forward. But one thing it doesn’t look like he’s doing any time soon, is giving up. Jones said that he’s been involved in the case too long to just let it go.
“I told Connie that when we get this done, she and I, and Brooks’ little girl, are going to go to her husband’s grave and say, ‘Major, rest now.’ And that’s when we’ll know that we have won,” said Jones.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.