For the crew of U.S. Air Force CV-22 Osprey number 06-0031, a lot of things went wrong on the early morning of April 9, 2010, in southern Afghanistan. A series of alleged pilot errors and possible mechanical failures sent the speedy, hybrid aircraft — which takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like an airplane — crashing to the ground.
Four people died.
The loss of 06-0031 was a tragedy for the victims and their families. It was also problematic for proponents of the controversial Osprey. In recent years, elements within the U.S. military have worked hard to portray the V-22 as safe, reliable and combat-ready. The Afghanistan crash threatened to undermine that effort.
Which perhaps explains why the Air Force appeared to cover up the possible real cause of 06-0031’s deadly mishap. The lead investigator, Brig. Gen Donald Harvel, claimed that the V-22 suffered engine problems before its crash. Then Harvel’s superior officer overruled the initial decision, chalking up the accident mostly to pilot error. That took the heat off the Osprey itself.
“There was absolutely a lot of pressure to change my report,” he told Air Force Times, adding that the flying branch was focused on protecting the V-22’s reputation.
A series of fatal crashes between 1992 and 2000 earned the Osprey a reputation as a widowmaker … and nearly resulted in the aircraft’s cancellation. But the V-22 survived, thanks to determined lobbying by the Marine Corps (the Osprey’s main user) and manufacturers Bell and Boeing. After an 18-month redesign period, the Osprey returned to flight in 2002. Five years later, the tiltrotor entered combat.
Tentatively at first, and with growing confidence, the military crafted a narrative — one neatly summed up by Lt. Col. Jason Holden, V-22 plans officer at Marine Corps headquarters in Virginia. “The message is that the V-22 flying today in Iraq and Afghanistan … is not the same V-22 we had years ago,” Holden told Danger Room. “We had problems, acknowledged the problems and have gone on to fix them.”
But as we reported on Thursday, the Marines’ V-22 probably isn’t nearly as safe as Holden and other officials would have us believe. Through clever bureaucratic maneuvering and massaging of mishap data, the Marines have apparently downplayed several serious Osprey accidents, masking ongoing problems with the tiltrotor’s engines, in particular.
It’s possible the Air Force did the same thing during the investigation of 06-0031’s crash, covering up the V-22’s safety risk in order to protect a prized weapon system.