Osprey crash blamed on co-pilot

Marine Corps investigation clears aircraft in Morocco crash as Japan continues to question the Osprey's safety after their arrival in Okinawa.

Marine Corps leaders announced Friday the April 2012 deadly crash of a MV-22 Osprey in Morocco was caused by pilot error.

The crash has helped launch a rash of demonstrations in Japan to protest the arrival of the first 12 tilt-rotor aircraft in Okinawa that Marine officials plan to use to replace the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. The Corps’ command investigation blamed the co-pilot, saying mechanical error played no role in the crash.

The Osprey — despite its troubled past to include production delays and crashed test flights – has proven effective since joining the Air Force and Marine Corps’ operational fleets. Marine leaders have often said it’s one of the safest aircraft in the Corps.

Japanese leaders have shared safety concerns with the Pentagon following the crash in Morocco and another Osprey crash in Florida in June. The Florida crash involved an Air Force Osprey and injured five airmen that led to the ouster of the squadron commander.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has spoken with Japanese military leaders to explain why the Corps wants to station Ospreys in Okinawa. He has also said the U.S. will wait to fly the Ospreys in Japan until Japan’s leadership approves its safety.

The Osprey in the Morocco crash was assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261 (Reinforced), 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The accident happened near Cap Draa, Morocco, during African Lion, a U.S.-Morocco training exercise.

The accident occurred as the Osprey was taking off, turning to avoid a busy landing field even as it was rotating its proprotors to transition from helicopter mode to fixed wing.

As it did that, the center of gravity moved forward – pointing the Osprey’s nose down – and a strong tailwind pushed the plane forward and downward. The co-pilot, he said, failed to adjust the nacelles during the turn to overcome the effects of the nose-down altitude.

“The aircraft is now committed and it flies into the ground,” said Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Robert E. Schmidle Jr., deputy commandant for Marine Corps Aviation. The Osprey only reached an altitude of about 50 feet above the ground before it crashed, killing two Marine aircrew members, Cpls. Robby A. Reyes and Derek A. Kerns.

Had the pilots kept the aircraft in helicopter mode until they had gained speed and altitude, the accident probably would not have happened, Schmidle said.

In releasing the report Friday, Schmidle said the Corps already is taking steps to prevent similar incidents. Going forward, all Osprey pilots and flight crews will be briefed on what happened at Cap Draa.

The Morocco crash lessons also will be incorporated into pilot training academics, fully described in naval training manuals that pilots review and programmed into flight simulators.

“We fly simulators routinely to simulate aircraft emergencies that we would not do in the air for obvious reasons,” he said. “We can recreate this kind of incident and learn from it as we go forward.”

An Aircraft Mishap Board will continue investigating the crash even though the board is confident it has found the cause, Schmidle said. He did not give details about what conclusions he expects the AMB to reach.

In addition, a Field Flight Performance Board has yet to convene and look into the actions of the pilot and co-pilot, both of whom survived the crash.

“That board has not been convened yet because the physical injuries to the pilots are such that they are not able to actually sit for the board right now. As soon as their convalescence is complete we’ll begin that particular part of the investigating process,” he said. The pilots’ names have not yet been released.

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Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.