WASHINGTON: The pilot in command of the Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22 Osprey that crashed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida on June 13 was also the copilot of an AFSOC Osprey that suffered a fatal accident in Afghanistan on April 8, 2010, Breaking Defense has confirmed.
Still unclear is whether Maj. Brian Luce or his copilot, Capt. Brett Cassidy, was at the controls over an Eglin gunnery range when their Osprey went down around 6:45 p.m. on a clear day while flying in formation with another CV-22 during a training exercise. Luce, who like Cassidy and their three enlisted crew members suffered undisclosed injuries in the accident, was released from Eglin Hospital two days after the crash.
Two years ago, Luce, who declined through the 1st Special Operations Wing’s public affairs office to comment, was also in the right seat of a CV-22 Osprey that landed hard while carrying Army Rangers on a night raid against insurgents in Afghanistan. That Osprey flipped onto its back after its front landing gear collapsed and its nose went into a ditch, killing four of 19 people on board.
Col. James Slife, who as commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., relieved the commander of his unit’s Osprey squadron this week as a result of the Eglin crash, declined in an interview with Breaking Defense to say whether Luce and Cassidy might also face penalties for the accident.
“The results of the Accident Investigation Board will guide our decisions, if there’s some misbehavior on the part of the crew or if they performed in a way that was unsatisfactory,” Slife said. “It’s too early to say whether they will or won’t face any disciplinary action.”
Air Force aircraft crashes are first examined by a Safety Investigation Board, whose purpose is to evaluate the cause and safety implications of aviation losses and whose evidence and deliberations are privileged and never released. A separate Accident Investigation Board, whose report is generally released after being redacted, examines crashes to assess responsibility.
The Osprey, which the Air Force designates CV-22 and the Marine Corps MV-22, is called a “tiltrotor” because it swivels two 38-foot rotors on the tips of its wings upward to take off, land and hover like a helicopter and tilts them forward to fly with the speed and range of a turboprop fixed-wing propeller plane.
Made in a 50-50 partnership by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. and Boeing Co., the Osprey became controversial during two decades of development that included three fatal crashes, schedule delays and cost overruns. The V-22 was redesigned and retested in 2001-2002, however, and has since become a useful new capability for the Marines and AFSOC. Despite the Eglin crash and an MV-22 crash in Morocco in April that killed two Marines, the Osprey has also been one of the safest rotorcraft in the military since it went into service. Over the past decade, the U.S. military has lost 606 lives in 414 helicopter crashes, including four soldiers killed in two Army helicopters lost in Afghanistan during the past month.
The recent V-22 crashes have increased anxieties about the Osprey in Japan, where local leaders on Okinawa have cited noise and safety concerns in resisting a Marine Corps plan to deploy MV-22s on their island later this year. Japanese Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials were at the Pentagon on Friday to receive briefings on the Air Force and Marine Corps crash investigations from U.S. officials including Christopher Johnstone, director for Northeast Asia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy) and Brig. Gen. Terrence
O’Shaughnessy, deputy director for politico-military affairs for Asia on the Joint Staff.
“The Department of Defense takes the inquiries made by the Japanese government very seriously and provided relevant information to the extent currently possible, and will continue to do so,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said. “The Osprey is a highly capable aircraft with an excellent operational safety record, which includes more than five years of worldwide
deployments and 140,000 flight hours.”
Luce was quoted in a recent Popular Mechanics article which reported that the V-22’s speed and range have “turned doubters into converts” among special operations troops. “Some of the guys have a little hesitancy,” Luce told the magazine. “But then they ride with us and get from point A to point B in record time.”
1st Special Operations Wing commander Slife said there was “no reason to expect there are any mechanical flaws” that could have caused the Osprey crash at Eglin. He also confirmed that investigators would examine whether the crash resulted because the Osprey that went down, the second in a two-ship formation, got too close to the CV-22 it was following. The aircraft were flying in helicopter mode as a gunner fired at targets on the ground with a machinegun mounted on the rear ramp of the second Osprey.
As Breaking Defense reported June 21, a major hazard for Ospreys flying behind others in helicopter mode is the risk of the trailing aircraft getting into the lead aircraft’s powerful rotor wash, which can knock the lift out from under one of the second V-22’s rotors and cause a sudden “roll off” that may be unrecoverable. Osprey pilots are admonished to keep at least 250 feet between cockpits and avoid the 5 to 7 o’clock positions behind another V-22.
“That phenomenon is well understood in the V-22 community,” Slife said. “There’s prominent warnings against flying in that flight regime in our flight manual. That’s certainly one of the things the safety board is going to investigate.”
Slife declined to explain in any detail his reasons for relieving Lt. Col. Matthew Glover of command at the 8th Special Operations Squadron, which Glover had taken over in May 2011, but the colonel said that “philosophically” all the military services hold commanders responsible for what happens in their units.
“The Navy is certainly known for this, but I think everybody acknowledges that commanders are accountable,” Slife said. “Accountability and culpability are not necessarily the same concept.”
Being relieved of command is usually a career ending event and “a personal tragedy for the person involved,” Slife said. “But at the end of the day, our loyalty has to be towards the organization, and in this case, toward the airmen of that squadron. We owe those airmen the very best leadership that we can provide them.”
Osprey pilot Luce’s name wasn’t included in the Accident Investigation Board report on the 2010 CV-22 crash in Afghanistan. Breaking Defense confirmed with three individuals who know him personally that he was the copilot. The fatalities in the Afghanistan accident included pilot in command Maj. Randell D. Voas, who was at the controls in that incident. Also killed were Air Force Senior Master Sgt. James B. Lackey, Army Ranger Cpl. Michael D. Jankiewicz and a female Afghan interpreter.
Luce, who was thrown from that aircraft still strapped into his seat, had flown part of the mission in that intended night raid against an insurgent target but wasn’t at the controls when that CV-22 touched down at more than 90 miles an hour a quarter mile short of where it was supposed to land. The Osprey’s landing gear were down when it hit the ground and the aircraft raced over flat, sandy earth with its rotors tilted nearly all the way up, according to the Accident Investigation Board. Some of the Rangers on board thought they had merely made a fast roll-on landing until the aircraft flipped onto its back.
Following the accident, Luce told investigators his memory was blank about everything that happened after they were about one minute away from their intended landing zone.
“Unfortunately, that was the last thing I remember,” Luce testified. “I don’t know if it’s my mind playing tricks on me or if this is something I actually remember, but I remember watching the radar altimeter” showing stages of their descent. “When I remember seeing this, I felt as if, not that I was outside the aircraft, but I was just not in my copilot position; I was watching this from outside the aircraft. I didn’t feel like I was – it was kind of like I was a spectator. I wasn’t part of the crew. I was just seeing this happening.”
The Afghanistan crash investigators concluded that as many as 10 factors led to that accident but that none could be singled out as a primary cause. They included the crew being distracted as they pressed to make their target landing zone on time, a 17-knot tailwind and, in the view of the eight-member Accident Investigation Board’s chairman, then-Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel of the Texas Air National Guard, possible loss of engine power. The vice commander of AFSOC at the time, however, overruled Harvel on the engine issue, citing engineering studies that detected no evidence of power loss.