JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — The chopping of the tilt-rotor engine was soft at first, but Connie Gruber knows the sound by heart. "That's the Osprey," she said from her living room sofa, looking up toward the room's arched windows. "We're in its flight pattern; sometimes I can see it through that window." Fifteen years ago, on April 8, 2000, Connie's husband, Marine Corps Maj. Brooks Gruber, and Lt. Col. John Brow were testing an Osprey that crashed in Marana, Ariz., killing them and 17 other Marines on board. Years later, investigations into the crash would show that the men boarded the aircraft that night lacking the knowledge, training or warning systems that could have saved their lives. Still, when the Marines issued a statement in July 2000 on their findings of the crash, they allowed Brow and Gruber to take the blame. "Human factors" were said to be the primary cause of the accident. After the crash, or "mishap" as it is called in official correspondence, and a second fatal crash a few months later, the Osprey was kicked back into development to identify the speeds, descents and altitudes of safe flight. Training was overhauled, and an electronic warning system was installed that would alert crews if the airframe was nearing speeds and descent rates that could put them in jeopardy. On April 8, 2000, Brow and Gruber didn't have any of that. In the 15 years since, the families of both pilots have relentlessly pushed to clear their names. They have enlisted the help of Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who has become so dedicated to their cause he says he'll die before he lets the issue go. Through the years of pressing the Department of Defense to clear Brow and Gruber, many of the officials who were involved with the program have said the men were not to blame. This week, they are making their case again, this time with Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work. They want a letter spelling out that the cause of the crash was not pilot error, to set the record straight. They want to make a point of honor, said Brow's widow, Trish: The pilots "discovered an aerodynamic phenomena that was unique to the aircraft — and then they were blamed for it."
An exciting start Almost 25 years ago, in a friend's living room not too far from her current house, Connie was a Camp Lejeune schoolteacher getting ready for a blind date. "And he walked in, said, ‘Hello,' and smiles … and I thought, ‘Wow,' " she said. "It was just that feeling like you've always known him." The pair married under the Marines' crossed swords on Valentine's Day in 1992. Gruber had his vision set on the Corps' highly competitive new aviation program to fly the V-22, and he and his wife worked through a long application process. When he was selected, they moved to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Gruber took his first flight in the Osprey with Brow. When they landed, the guys got sprayed with a firehose to celebrate. "He'd just come home from flying it." Connie recalled. "We're sitting down at the dinner table and he's just talking to me with the energy of like a little boy, a little kid, and he said, ‘It smelled like a new car, and it felt like a rocket.' " Brow's wife, Trish, and their two boys, Mike and Matt, were already settled in the area; Brow was a career C-130 pilot who'd take his 7- and 8-year-old sons onto the base to its fishing hole and into the cockpits of the C-130 and the Osprey. As wives of this unique testing crew, Trish and Connie knew each other casually then. But Connie was quick to return to North Carolina when she and her husband found out at Christmas 1998 they were expecting a baby. Gruber was to be permanently stationed at Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville after training finished anyway, and Connie's mother lived there, so they quickly had a home built close to the base and settled in. Connie last saw her husband on Valentine's Day in 2000. It was their eighth wedding anniversary and the sixth month of their new life with infant daughter Brooke. Gruber was getting ready to deploy, and he was excited. The career CH-53 pilot was packing for several months of critical flight tests in Arizona with the Osprey. Later that fall the Pentagon would decide whether the program was ready for full-rate production, and the Navy and Marine Corps were eager to keep it on track. Boundaries unknown The V-22 Osprey was envisioned as a hybrid: half-plane, half-helicopter and designed to give the military the forward speed of fixed-wing flying and the flexibility of rotary takeoff, hover and landing. But by the time Brow and Gruber prepared to board the Osprey for operational tests, the program was under tremendous pressure. "This was a program that Dick Cheney wanted to kill when he was secretary of defense because of the costs and technology problems," said Larry Korb, who served as assistant secretary of defense (manpower, reserve affairs, installations, and logistics) under President Ronald Reagan. Cheney was about to return to a position of influence over the program, as vice president under George W. Bush. To protect the Osprey, the services needed it moved into full-rate production. "The longer this thing stays around [in testing] before moving into [full-rate] production, the greater chance it will be canceled," Korb said. "That's why they did it." The program was $3 billion over budget and eight years behind schedule, according to Richard Whittle, a former Pentagon correspondent who tracked the program and reported its story in "The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey." To rush the Osprey into full-rate production, the Navy cut critical developmental testing that the Osprey's contractors should have performed, according to a General Accountability Office investigation after the crash. As a result, the boundaries of safe flight on the Osprey were unknown when the men tested it that night. Neither the training manuals nor the training program warned them that the rate of descent and speed could induce a dangerous turbulence known as "vortex ring state," which could be fatal. April 2000 was to be the last month of critical testing. Gruber and Brow had about 100 flight hours each in the Osprey, and thousands of flight hours in their former aircraft. They were known, the subsequent investigation found, as "some of the Corps' most professional and seasoned pilots." No warning The night of April 8, 2000, Brow and Gruber's Osprey served as the wingman of a two-ship formation, and they were tailed by two Osprey crews assessing their performance. The Ospreys were interacting with more than two dozen fighter jets and helicopters over Arizona as part of the Weapons Tactics Instructor course 2.0, which pushes airframes and crews and provides the only realistic environment to test the Osprey's performance other than sending it to war. As they approached their target that night, the lead Osprey, Nighthawk 71, and Brow and Gruber's aircraft were 2,000 feet above their assigned altitude. One minute from their target, the lead aircraft's pilots realized the Ospreys were too high and began to descend, according to the crash investigation report. Nighthawk 72 followed their lead. To drop faster, the crews cut speed. At that point in the flight, Nighthawk 72 was in its helicopter configuration and, according to the flight recorder, it was dropping altitude at more than 2,000 feet per minute. In the final minute of the flight, to slow the fall, Brow increased power to the Osprey's two engines. According to the accident report, the added power increased the amount of disturbed air under the Osprey that was pushed up through the rotor blades. The aircraft then entered vortex ring state. It was a known risk for helicopter pilots, but for the Osprey in 2000, there were no identified triggers, no training on avoidance and no in-flight system warning. "As the [Osprey] encountered Vortex Ring State … flight control inputs/responses were normal," the initial crash investigation found, up to the point when Brow maneuvered right to land. The Osprey began an uncontrolled roll, slamming inverted and nose-first into the ground, exploding and killing all 19 Marines on board. Nighthawk 71 made a hard landing but all crewmembers survived. ‘Human factors' The operating manual that Brow and Gruber had before the crash was called the NATOPS, for Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization. It warned them to avoid descent rates of 800 feet per minute or greater at air speeds less than 40 knots. It says nothing more. There is no discussion in the manual that failure to follow these speeds could lead to vortex ring state. According to an investigation in 2000, the 800 feet-per-minute/40 knots speed limit was established by the contractor at altitudes above 10,000 feet "for safety purposes" — nothing like the operations being tested that night. Naval Air Systems Command, NAVAIR, "chose not to continue the testing or explore the V-22 [vortex ring state] characteristics" and greenlighted the airframe to move to Brow and Gruber's team after "receiving assurance" from their testing command "that the 800/40 limit would be acceptable." A GAO investigation in 2001 would find that "developmental testing was deleted, deferred or simulated in order to meet cost or schedule goals." The command that reassured NAVAIR was led by Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, and he led the press briefing July 27, 2000, that launched the families' current nightmare. He wouldn't allow TV cameras to show his face as he read the findings from the 8,000-page crash report out of respect "for the families that have buried their loved ones." Then he tore those families apart. "Apparently, neither pilot recognized the danger presented by their high rate of descent and low forward airspeed, which is the same in any helicopter that you fly," McCorkle said at the briefing. "Although the report stops short of specifying pilot error as a cause, it notes that the pilot of the ill-fated aircraft significantly exceeded the rate of descent established by regulations for safe flight." Then McCorkle read from the press release: "Unfortunately, the pilot's drive to accomplish that mission appears to have been the fatal flaw." The print version of the release is slightly different, instead saying "fatal factor." "When most of us first saw [the press release] we thought it was euphemism for pilot error," said Whittle, who covered the Pentagon for the Dallas Morning News. McCorkle said at the briefing that they chose "human factors" instead of "pilot error" to reflect actions from both crews. "You'll see that there were human-factor errors that were committed by the two crewmembers, the pilot and the co-pilot, of the lead airplane, to put the mishap aircraft into the position that he was in," he said. "And both the pilots in the mishap aircraft were in there with human factors too." Thirteen years later, Philip Coyle, then-head of the Pentagon's operational test and evaluation program, questioned how McCorkle and the Marine Corps could tarnish the reputations of Brow and Gruber. "These pilots died trying to accomplish a mission that had been laid out for them in advance," he said in a 2013 letter to help Jones clear their names. "The Marine Corps was trying to demonstrate that the V-22 Osprey could descend rapidly into a landing zone under hostile circumstances that might be encountered in battle at night. Coming in slow and low would not be consistent with hostile battlefield conditions. "The sentence implies that the pilots knowingly did something wrong when they didn't," Coyle wrote. "The boundary conditions for safe flight were not known on April 8, 2000, not to the pilots of the aircraft that day nor to anyone else." In January 2001, CBS news program "60 Minutes" tied McCorkle to a scandal at New River where the Osprey squadron commander was removed for falsifying maintenance records to improve its readiness rating. In an email obtained by CBS, McCorkle's subordinate, then-Brig. Gen. James Amos, warned him six months after the crash that the readiness rates of the Osprey were plummeting. "Had hoped to be able to use some recent numbers next month when you meet [with then-Navy acquisition head Lee] Buchanan" for his full rate decision in December, Amos wrote. "But there's nothing they can do about the current numbers at 204," referencing VMMT-204, the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron at New River. "Remember that their Maint Dept is on the "improved NALCOMIS," which you can't cheat on," Amos wrote McCorkle, referring to an automated system to record maintenance instead of making handwritten entries. In March 2001 the Department of Defense Inspector General seized computer files from McCorkle and Amos. McCorkle retired in October 2001. ‘A good pilot' A few days after the crash, a memorial service was held at the chapel at New River. As the district's representative, Walter Jones was there. "I will never forget ... we sat behind Connie Gruber. I did not know her at the time, but that little girl, Brooke…," the congressman said, getting emotional during an interview with Stars and Stripes last month. Jones was a relatively new member of the House Armed Services Committee. He didn't know much about the Osprey, except to follow the lead of his colleague, then-Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., who had convinced him that "we have to save this plane," Jones said. In December 2002, he got a letter that Connie Gruber had written to every member of the committee. "It basically said, ‘These two men deserve to have their integrity restored, and if you are a man of honor and integrity then I'm calling on you to do it,' " Jones recalled. It inspired the congressman to join the families' cause, which he now says he'll die before he gives up on. For years the Navy and Marine Corps have resisted requests to clarify the record. They told the families they regret that the pilots have been blamed in the media. In 2009, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said, "These men do not have blights on their names and need no exoneration." So there was none. But words on the Internet live on forever. In 2009, for example, when a new book on Marine Corps history and a local news channel reported on the crash, each cited pilot error as the cause. "It's hard enough to lose someone. But to have the Marine Corps put a shadow over it," said Trish Brow from the family's Maryland home. "He was a good pilot." Troublesome qualifier Brooke Gruber just had a Sweet 16 party. She's petite like her mother, with her father's blue eyes and smile. While her party was about youth and the future, the past was part of it. Brooks Gruber is always in their hearts, from the gold wings that the mother and daughter wear — Brooks gave Connie the jewelry when they were dating — to how they included him in her party by sharing a slideshow Connie hadn't shown since his funeral. "I … felt sad remembering that someone most special to me could not be there to celebrate a very important moment of my life," Brooke said. "When people ask me about my father and what happened to him, I don't want to have to explain and defend all the reasons why it wasn't his fault. I want them to know the truth of how he died with honor." Matt Brow was 7 when his father's Osprey crashed. Now 22, he's thinking of joining the military. He's interested in serving even though this long fight has shown him the ugly side of Pentagon bureaucracy. "But for every instance over the last 15 years that it could have done more … like change two words," he said, he has come across individual soldiers "who have still made me respect the people in it, and value it." "At this point I think I am past any feelings I get from seeing an Osprey in the air," Matt said. "After it got decommissioned for a while and put back, it did better, and now it's deployed and actually saving people lives and helping the war effort. But if everyone's moving past it, it seems like it would be an easy thing to go back and right the wrongs." The closest Jones and the families came to getting their wish was in 2013, when then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Amos wrote Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Jones about the 2000 crash. "Among the greatest misfortunes in the wake of the tragedy was the mischaracterization — not by the Marines Corps but by others — that pilot error was solely to blame for the mishap," Amos wrote. "That characterization failed to adequately account for the many intangibles contributing to the outcome … The MV-22 program did not significantly recognize the potential safety threat from Vortex Ring State." So close, but still the words stung — not "solely" to blame. "We sat down and read that — all three of us [Trish and sons Matt and Mike Brow], silently, in Congressman Jones' office," when it came out in 2013, Trish said. They all jumped on the same qualifier, the same hedging they'd received for so long. Under review The next few weeks may tell whether the families will get the correction they seek — a definitive statement from the DOD with the following words: "After review of many reports, it is my conclusion that Lt. Col. Brow and Major Gruber could not have been responsible for the crash, because they had neither the knowledge nor the training to avert the crash." The letter, and a large packet of support are under review by deputy secretary Work. Because the packet reflects "ongoing discussions between senior leadership and Congress," Work was unavailable to be interviewed. The change would not affect the official documents or the current Osprey program, Jones said. The lawsuits are over, so there would be no legal ramifications or further monetary gain. (Manufacturers Bell Boeing settled out of court with the families; the details are sealed. A spokeswoman for Bell's V-22 program deferred comment to the Marine Corps, where a spokesman declined an interview.) If Work does not approve the change, the families will not give up. "I think this fight only has one end," Matt Brow said. He said that while there are memorials to his dad and the crew, clearing his father's name is one of two tributes that mean the most. "That, and living our lives well, is the main thing we can do to honor him." For Connie, setting the record straight is something she deeply needs to feel at peace. "We proudly accept this, knowing his life sacrifice directly helped pave the way for the safety and success of today's Osprey," she said. "What we don't accept is the failure of leadership in making it perfectly clear both in the press and in the history of Marine Corps aviation that the aircraft was not ready. The pilots were not properly trained, the mission should never have been flown that night." Just as she finished, another Osprey flew over, heading for the base.