Ospreys Cleared to Fly Again After Deadly Crash Despite Mechanical Failure with Unknown Cause

A CV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to the 27th Special Operations Group, Cannon Air Force Base
A CV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft assigned to the 27th Special Operations Group, Cannon Air Force Base (AFB), New Mexico, takes off for a Weapons School Integration mission at Nellis AFB, Nevada, May 30, 2023. (Wyatt Stabler/U.S. Air Force)

Military officials have announced that the V-22 Osprey -- an aircraft that already has one known parts issue -- is returning to flight despite an investigation into a deadly Air Force crash in November revealing another new mechanical failure that is not fully understood.

The V-22 Joint Program Office -- part of Naval Air Systems Command -- grounded the aircraft nearly three months ago after a deadly crash of an Air Force Special Operations Command Osprey on Nov. 29 off the coast of Japan that killed eight airmen. That same office now says data analysis has led to lifting the grounding, even as many aspects surrounding this latest chapter in the Osprey saga remain shrouded in secrecy.

The move to push the crucial aircraft back into service despite lingering questions, and the investigations into the Japan crash and an earlier deadly Marine Corps Osprey crash in Australia not being fully completed, sparked concern among families connected to the aircraft -- and drew a rebuke from a House chairman who leads a key oversight committee looking into the safety issues.

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"We have high confidence that we understand what component failed, and how it failed," Marine Corps Col. Brian Taylor, the program manager for the V-22 program, told reporters in a hours-long briefing Wednesday. The briefing was provided to reporters on the condition that it could not be immediately published.

"I think what we are still working on is the 'why,'" Taylor said, noting that "this is the first time that we've seen this particular component fail in this way."

The Osprey is valued among the Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force for its ability to fly long distances, at higher speeds than helicopters, and land in relatively tight locations. The airframe has become crucial for its flexibility and ability to conduct a wide variety of missions like moving large numbers of troops or cargo while being able to be refueled mid-flight.

Neither Taylor nor any other official who spoke with reporters Wednesday would identify the part that failed or offer any major details on procedural changes that are being made as part of the aircraft's return to flight.

Instead, Taylor explained that the decision to return the aircraft to the air was based on "data gathered from this particular mishap investigation but, then, also a deep evaluation of the close to 750,000 flight hours that we have on V-22s over the last ... 20 or so years."

The fix, Taylor said, is not any sort of hardware change to the aircraft.

"We're changing some inspection intervals. We're changing some other kind of maintenance and procedural limits that we have on the aircraft that address this particular issue," he explained.

The Air Force special operations Osprey that went down Nov. 29, call sign Gundam 22, was on a training mission off Japan's Yakushima Island. The deadly crash triggered a grounding of all Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy V-22s. Additionally, three Marines were killed in an MV-22 Osprey crash during training in Australia last year. Both incidents are still under investigation.

The new part failure is now the second known, persistent mechanical issue that is plaguing the Osprey.

The aircraft also has a yearslong problem with its complex system of clutch assemblies that have caused at least 15 mishaps -- some of which could have become fatal -- since the Osprey entered operations. That problem was revealed only because it prompted the Air Force to briefly ground its fleet of Ospreys in the summer of 2022.

Despite assurances from the Marine Corps that the problem was under control, the clutch issue became deadly in June 2022 when one of its Ospreys crashed in the California desert, killing five Marines.

An investigation into that crash was made public last summer, and Taylor made a strikingly similar defense of the aircraft to Military.com at that time.

The Osprey program manager argued last July that data analysis of some of the more recent incidents involving the clutch led officials to believe that replacing a critical component -- the input quill assembly -- more frequently was 99% effective despite skepticism from a Marine Corps widow of one of the pilots.

Just like now, Taylor conceded to Military.com then that "we have a good understanding of what happens and where it happens, and it happens inside of the input quill" but that "the piece that we're missing, really, is just the initiating events ... that's the part that we're continuing to look for."

Military officials at first argued that the exact hours it takes for the input quill to degrade was an operational secret and refused to provide it to reporters. The release of a Marine Corps investigation a few months later, however, revealed that figure to be 800 flight hours.

Crawl, walk, run ... fly

While the Joint Program Office has lifted the grounding for flights, Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy officials said they all plan to proceed judiciously -- meaning it could be weeks or even months before they put their Ospreys in the air.

Investigations are ongoing into the Air Force's crash, but all three services -- the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy -- said part of their response has been to put their V-22 crews through extensive simulator training following the incident.

"Our crews have been in the simulator since the stand-down to hold a modicum of their capabilities as it moves forward," Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command, told reporters.

"Aviation is inherently risky, and that's why we train so hard and focus so hard on risk management so that we're never taking unnecessary risks. And when risks are identified, we are finding ways to mitigate that risk to the maximum potential," he said.

Other services, such as the Marines, are following similar guidance.

Brig. Gen. Richard Joyce, the Marine Corps assistant deputy commandant for aviation, told reporters that pilots with Aviation Combat Element-Crisis Response-Africa in Djibouti and MV-22 crews with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were pulled out of their areas to go back for simulated training.

"We pulled them out of country, flew them to Japan to get in the simulator to try to minimize degradation and proficiency by continuing to exercise the systems in a virtual environment," Joyce told reporters.

Vice Adm. Daniel Cheever, the commander of Naval Air Forces, told reporters that, similar to the other services, his aircrews will slowly work their way back into the cockpit and then aboard ships.

"What I need to do is get them up to a certain amount of flight hours for currency and proficiency before I put them on a ship," he said. "So, as we build that capability and capacity, you have weeks, maybe over a month time frame that will build that currency and proficiency and crawl, walk, run into this thing ... then we'll get back to mission."

Meanwhile, Bauernfeind said Air Force Special Operations Command has convened a safety investigation board and an accident investigation board in addition to conducting a comprehensive review of the Air Force CV-22 force as a whole.

That final review is analyzing whether the CV-22 force is appropriately organized, trained and equipped for safe and efficient special operations.

Despite not disclosing the cause of the crash and stating that investigations are still ongoing, the service officials all seemed to be inherently OK with the risk their pilots may be taking on.

Cheever specifically cited "transparency" -- "just sharing information and data and that kind of stuff" -- as a chief reason for why he was confident the Navy could operate the aircraft safely.

When asked for more details, he said: "I don't want to get in front of our investigation, so I can't divulge any of that."

Families fear lack of transparency

Adding to the mystery surrounding the Osprey's return to flight is a lack of detail about how the families of the aircraft's most recent fatal crash feel about the situation.

As part of the agreement laid out by Naval Air Systems Command to receive the information about the lifting of the grounding order, Military.com had to agree not to contact any of the family members of airmen killed in the Nov. 29 crash.

Officials said that the reason was families were still receiving official notification about the lifting of the flight ban. The Associated Press reported last week that the ban was being lifted.

Meanwhile, officials who briefed reporters Wednesday offered competing narratives on the process of notifying families.

Taylor, the Osprey's program manager and a key figure in getting the aircraft back in the air, told reporters that he needed "to wait for the investigation to come out in order to be ... more transparent" with the public and noted that "the families of those eight fallen airmen ... deserve to hear first exactly what happened and exactly what transpired."

However, Bauernfeind said that the families have been getting "updates on the status of the safety investigation board" and his "intent is to make sure that our families are aware of the process."

But Bauernfeind also told reporters that only the Air Force's internal investigation into the crash -- the Safety Investigation Board -- was complete, while the broader Accident Investigation Board, the results of which the general said would be shared with the families, was "less than double-digit weeks" away from being finished.

Military.com did speak with a member of the Osprey community who said they have been in contact with many other families in the community and that there is a strong sense of concern and fear for service members who operate the platform.

The member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that many of the families within the tight knit community have "so much loyalty to the Osprey. ... They want to see it continue flying; I want to see it flying" before clarifying that "I want to see it flying, but safely."

"It's not like these people want this to be grounded forever -- they want the dark era to be over, but there's a lack of transparency that needs to be addressed," they said.

Taylor told reporters that he believes "without hesitation" that the Osprey should return to flight.

"I firmly believe in the V-22, and I would fly one anytime," he added.

However, the member who spoke with Military.com noted that "the people that are making these decisions, obviously, aren't in these aircraft" on a regular basis.

They said that the crews operating the Osprey don't balk at the idea of combat situations.

"You could be in danger, you could be shot at, but you have a mission to do and it's an acceptable risk," they said. "But that's a very different mindset versus, say, a training mission. You need these quals, it's an ordinary day, ordinary operations. Your aircraft might suffer a catastrophic failure and could fall out of the sky, but we're doing what we can."

The families aren't the only critics. Congressional leaders have also spoken out about the move to get the Osprey flying again.

House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., railed against the move in a press release ahead of the official announcement.

"Serious concerns remain such as accountability measures put in place to prevent crashes, a general lack of transparency, how maintenance and operational upkeep is prioritized, and how DoD assesses risks," he said.

Comer launched an investigation into the aircraft shortly after the Air Force's deadly crash. At the time, he gave Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin until Jan. 4 -- two weeks -- to provide him documents.

Now, two months later, Comer says that his committee "has yet to receive adequate information requested from DoD" and noted that lawmakers "will continue to rigorously investigate the DoD's Osprey program to attain answers to our questions on behalf of American taxpayers and protect U.S. service members defending our nation."

1980s first-generation tiltrotor technology

Military.com reported last year that the Air Force, Marines and Navy have stopped new purchases of the aircraft and said only that they "will complete the MV-22 and CMV-22 programs of record, with deliveries through 2025."

Despite seemingly frequent deadly crashes and incidents with the V-22 over the last few years, experts say it's highly unlikely that any of the services would stop flying them altogether.

Jeremiah Gertler, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., who specializes in aviation, told Military.com that, until a suitable replacement for the V-22 is ready to be immediately adopted by the services, officials will find the best ways to keep flying the Osprey.

"Do they keep flying these until they're replaced by something else?" Gertler said. "And history suggests that the answer to that is 'yes.' They're not going to make the capability go away and rely on older technology until they have something to move to."

The grounding put operational challenges on all the services and some, like the Navy, had to rely on older aircraft such as the C-2 Greyhound to complete their mission requirements.

Gertler said the services could revert to older technologies, but as global tensions increase and as many of the service branches turn their eyes toward competition in the Pacific, that's not a likely long-term solution.

"They can step back and do things the way they were doing it before V-22 existed, but that requires them to change their operations in ways that they don't want to," Gertler said. "That's why they bought the V-22 in the first place, was to improve the way they were doing things. So, the idea of stepping back 20 years in time is not appealing to the services."

Bauernfeind signaled to reporters that the V-22 has provided a unique capability for the Air Force but also criticized it as "1980s first-generation tiltrotor technology." He also noted that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has a program looking into an experimental vertical takeoff and landing plane.

Notably, in 2022, the Army announced Bell's tilt-rotor V-280 Valor as a replacement for the service's fleet of Black Hawk helicopters. Gertler said that if it proves successful for the Army, there's a chance the other services may want that aircraft in the future, too.

While a replacement for the Osprey is not near, the services said they remain, mostly, confident in the procedures, training and increased maintenance they've put in place.

"I have high confidence the protocols we're putting in place will avoid a catastrophic event like this happening again in the future," Bauernfeind told reporters. "I never say things with a finality because there is an inherent risk of what we do in military operations."

Related: Air Force Confirms Parts Failure Occurred in Deadly Japan Osprey Crash that Left 8 Airmen Dead

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