Col. James Slife, commanding officer of the 1st Special Operations Wing, issued a statement that omitted the name of dismissed commander Lt. Col. Matt Glover, who took charge of the Osprey unit at Hurlburt Field, Fla., in May 2011. Slife did not offer a detailed explanation for why Glover was being relieved – a career ending development, in most cases. The wing commander’s statement, first issued to our colleagues at InsideDefense.com, merely said the “challenges of the 8th Special Operations Squadron’s demanding mission require new leadership to maintain the highest levels of precision and to reliably support the ground forces which count on the 8th SOS to safely accomplish their missions.” Glover has been replaced, Breaking Defense has learned, by Lt. Col. Matthew Smith, former commander of the 20th Special Operations Squadron, another AFSOC unit at Cannon Air Force Base, N.Mex.
The cause of the crash, which occurred during a gunnery training exercise at a range on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla, remains unknown, Slife’s statement said, but “at this point the Air Force has no reason to believe a design flaw is to blame.”
The 8th SOS Ospreys didn’t fly from the time of the accident until earlier this week, said AFSOC spokeswoman Capt. Kristen Duncan, but “the only reason why they had a stand down was just to allow the squadron to meet the needs of the families and be there with the injured airmen.” An AFSOC news release Wednesday said none of the crew’s injuries was life-threatening, though Staff Sgt. Sean McMahon remains hospitalized.
An AFSOC veteran with years of experience said Glover’s relief and Slife’s statement dismissing the possibility that a flaw in the aircraft caused the crash partly reflect current budget pressures in Washington. The Osprey, called a tiltrotor because it tilts two large wingtip rotors up to fly like a helicopter and forward to fly like an airplane, has long been a major target for critics who distrust its unique way of flying and defense budget cutters who question whether its revolutionary capabilities are worth their high price tag.
An Air Force CV-22 costs about $78 million and Marine Corps MV-22s cost about $67 million under an existing five-year contract with 50-50 partner Osprey makers Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. and Boeing Co.
“AFSOC is probably under pressure to say, how do we effectively make it look like we’re doing something,” this AFSOC veteran said. “With the budget there is tremendous pressure on all the services.” When events occur that might call the safety or utility of a major military program into question, “Any program manager or commander wants to aggressively make it known that they’re just not sitting back, they’re taking action,” the veteran said. “AFSOC’s trying to get ahead of the power curve.”
A Safety Investigation Board, whose results won’t be released, is initially investigating the crash, AFSOC spokeswoman Duncan said. The crash, in which no one was killed, occurred about 6:45 p.m. June 13 as two CV-22s were conducting gunnery training while flying like helicopters. Such training, in which a gunner fires a 7.62mm or .50-caliber machinegun at targets from the open back ramp of the second Osprey in formation, is usually conducted at altitudes lower than 1,000 feet above ground level.
Further details of the CV-22 crash have yet to be released, but veteran V-22 pilots tell Breaking Defense that a potential hazard in such formation flying is the powerful rotor wash created by the Osprey’s rotors. Rotor wash from the lead aircraft in a formation can knock the lift out from under one of a trailing Osprey’s rotors if the pilot of the second aircraft fails to keep enough separation, causing a “roll off” in which the second aircraft flips left or right suddenly. If the plane is at low altitude, there may be too little time for the pilot to recover control of the aircraft before it hits the ground. For this reason, V-22 pilots are trained to keep at least 250 feet of distance between themselves and the cockpit of other Ospreys when flying in formation.
“Flight formation in V-22s is safe if done right,” one veteran Osprey pilot said. “We know that if you are flying formation in a V-22, you need to be at least 250 feet cockpit to cockpit distance away from your lead aircraft, and you want to avoid the lead aircraft’s 5 to 7 o’clock position.”
The Air Force crash followed by two months the loss of a Marine Corps Osprey during an exercise in Morocco in which two enlisted crewmen were killed. That accident also remains under investigation.