The V-22 Can’t Spend Even One Minute in a Dust Cloud
And the Marines have known for years
A U.S. Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tiltrotor — a hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like an airplane thanks to its rotating engine nacelles — crashed during routine training near Creech Air Force Base in Nevada on Aug. 26, 2013.
No one died. But Marines in other Osprey crashes would not be so lucky.
In the summer of 2013, the pilots were bringing the tiltrotor in for a landing but couldn’t see. The Osprey tends to kick up a lot of dust when it’s close to the ground. The pilots pulled back and approached the landing zone several times, altogether spending several minutes in “brownout” conditions.
The dust swirled around the aircraft, bypassed the engine air particle separator — meant to protect the Osprey from dust — gummed up the turbine and stalled the engine. The aircraft lost power and thumped to the ground.
The Marines downplayed the crash, calling it a “hard landing.” The official accident report blamed the dust. “The effects of sand and dust on the MV-22’s engines has been identified as long-term degradation over time, and a matter of historical and operational record,” reads the cover letter of the accident report that War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
Two years later on May 17, 2015, another Osprey crashed in Hawaii. As in the Creech crash, the pilots spent too much time in brownout conditions. The engine sucked in the Hawaiian sand, which shut down the engine. This time two Marines died. Despite the V-22’s sand problems being “a matter of historical and operation record,” the Corps blamed the pilots for the Hawaii crash.
In their official report on the Creech crash, Marine investigators declared that it was clear Ospreys could suffer an “unsafe” drop in engine power if the aircraft spent too long dust clouds After reviewing the findings, Lt. Col. Jason Holden — then head of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163 — and his superiors talked candidly about the V-22’s potentially dangerous habits in sandy and dusty environments.
“The rate of engine degradation that occurred in this event has not been seen or identified in the past,” Holden wrote. “The distinguishing characteristic of this event is the extended amount of time the crew spent hovering in [restricted-visibility landing] conditions. It should be noted that this crew did not violate any regulations or procedures.”
Col. Anthony Bianca, the commander of Marine Aircraft Group 16, recommended that crews should rely more on the Osprey’s computer in reduced-visibility situations. In a dust clouds, pilots would “wave off” if the plane didn’t “catch” the hover, then straighten out and land within 30 seconds.
Holden concurred but said the V-22 community needed a long-term solution to the problem. Boeing, which builds the V-22 alongside Bell, should upgrade the tiltrotor so this would stop happening.
“We cannot deny assault support to Marines that depend on us because of our unwillingness to train to, and execute landings in brownout [landing zones],” Holden wrote. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of guidance in hover-time limitations and engine vulnerabilities of the MV-22.”
After endorsing the conclusions, the officers asked for improvements to the aircraft itself as soon as possible … and new training for pilots in the meantime. No one blamed the crew.
Problems have plagued the V-22 since at least 1991. A particularly nasty crash of an early prototype in 1992 killed seven Marines. The Corps blamed that crash on “unspecified technical problems.”
After a decade of problems, Boeing redesigned the tiltrotor. Yet deadly problems persist.
Despite fixes to hydraulic lines and the addition of filters to prevent particles from getting into the engines, accidents keep happening. Since 2006, the Marine Corps’ V-22 fleet has suffered at least seven “Class A” and seven “Class B” incidents.
The Pentagon defines a Class A mishap as any accident where someone gets killed or permanently disabled, or one that involves more than $2 million in damage. The less-severe Class B category covers instances with more than $500,000 in damage, a lasting permanent disability or where three or more troops end up in the hospital.
The 2013 Creech crash, which the Marines described as a “hard landing,” was a Class A mishap. The accident totaled the plane. It’s a miracle no one died.
“All I could really hear was the blades and the sound of twisting and crunching metal,” one of the Marines in the Creech crash wrote in a statement during the investigation. “At that point I was on my face and I pushed myself up, ripped my gunners’ belt off and … looked out the back of the plane to see if I could run out the ramp, but it was engulfed in flames and dripping with fuel.”
When the Osprey hit the ground that day in 2013, the right wing broke off and the whole aircraft rolled onto its right side. The Osprey collapsed in on itself and the now-exposed rotor blades of the right engine tore through the left wing. The engine from the newly severed left wing dropped in on the body of the aircraft and the blades of both rotors shattered as they sliced through steel and dirt.
“When my sense came back to me, I was on my side, knew something was on fire,” another Marine who survived the Crash testified. “I knew parts of the aircraft were on fire and that we still had approximately 8,000 pounds of fuel at the time of the crash. … I crawled through the [crew] door and saw that I was under the aircraft. I could see some parts of the aircraft on fire and struggled to find a spot that I could squeeze through.”
The crew scrambled to escape the inferno. The left side of the V-22 houses an emergency exit. Pull a yellow emergency handle and a charge blows a hatch out the side. It would have been an easy escape route. One of the Marines pulled the T-shape lever but, “the charge failed to actuate.”
The four crew members all escaped the blaze. One called 9-1-1 and firefighters and rescue workers descended on the scene. Then the Osprey exploded. The first responders pulled back, waiting to find out of the Osprey housed any unexploded ordnance.
It took an hour to put out the fire. It was a very hard landing.
“[The Osprey] will improve, as it’s already improved markedly,” Brig. Gen. James Amos, then the Marines’ deputy assistant commandant for aviation, said of the V-22 in 2000. Amos was long one of the troubled plane’s most outspoken supporters. He retired from the Corps in 2014 and is now chairman of the board at Lord Corporation, a company that produces parts for the V-22.
Amos is right, the Osprey has improved. But so has the Marines’ ability to cover up the tragedies associated with it. Since 2013, the Marine Corps and Air Force have nearly universally blamed pilots for crashes in their public statements.
Behind the scenes, the story is different. The Marines haven’t disciplined either of the pilots in the 2015 Hawaii crash, despite labeling them responsible.
That might be because — despite public remarks to the contrary — the Marines know that pilots aren’t responsible. “The distinguishing characteristic of this event is the extended amount of time the crew spent hovering in [reduced visibility] conditions. It should be noted that this crew did not violate any regulations or procedures,” the post-accident report clearly states.
After the Hawaii crash, Marine investigators found all the same problems that had also caused the Creech crash — following official procedure, the pilots hovered too long in a dust cloud. The debris melted into critical spaces and shorted out the engine.
But in contrast to the Creech incident, in the case of the Hawaii crash the Corps publicly blamed the pilots.
In September 2015, just four months after the Oahu crash, the Navy’s in-house V-22 engineering team linked at least four accidents — including both the Oahu and Creech incidents — to reduced visibility situations and reactive sand. There were six additional instances where the same issues might have been present.
The “AE 1107C [engine] has not been qualified for operation in reactive sand; effects unknown,” states one bullet point in their briefing. The sailing branch’s technicians were working with engine-maker Rolls Royce to see if there was a trend, the presentation added.
Rolls Royce had checked the Osprey engines after the Creech crash two years prior. The particle filters worked fine, the company said. Yet it blamed the stall on “extensive sand/dust ingestion.”
“I recommend that … squadrons should adopt [procedures] that limit prolonged exposure to [dust] and require wave-offs when excessive time is spent in the dirt during a single [reduced-visibility] approach,” Holden wrote after the Creech crash.
At the time of the Oahu crash in 2015, the Osprey literature recommended the plane stay in brownout conditions no longer than 60 seconds. The Osprey that crashed in Hawaii spent just 45 seconds in the dust.
The current allowable time Osprey crews can hover in dust is 35 seconds. If the Marines reduce it much further, the V-22 won’t be able to make reduced-visibility landings at all.
At the bottom of the Marine’s Creech accident report, under the area marked aside for opinions, is a telling sentence.
“The airframe failed in a manner consistent with its design.”