Mike Determan lives five miles from Arizona's Marana Northwest Regional Airport, best-known to some as the site of the deadliest crash in the short history of Marines' tiltrotor aircraft.
On April 8, 2000, an Osprey attempting to land at the airport stalled and then plummeted in a phenomenon known as vortex ring state, killing all 19 Marines on board. Determan knew the history, but never guessed that tragedy involving the aircraft would strike again much closer to home.
But on May 17, 2015, another Osprey went down -- this time at Marine Corps Training Area Bellows, Hawaii. The aircraft had hovered twice for brief periods in severe brownout conditions during a landing attempt, resulting in significant dust intake and "turbine blade glassification," or the melting of reactive sand at high temperatures, according to an official command investigation obtained by Military.com.
Two Marines aboard the aircraft were killed: Lance Cpl. Matthew Determan, 21, an infantry squad leader with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines out of Camp Pendleton, California; and Cpl. Joshua Barron, 24, an Osprey crew chief with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161, out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. The other 20 Marines aboard the aircraft sustained injuries of varying severity.
The investigation into the tragic crash recommended new guidelines limiting cumulative Osprey hover time in reduced-visibility conditions to 60 seconds, called for more advanced technology to mitigate brownout conditions, and ascribed partial blame to the pilots of the aircraft and the commanders of the squadron and Marine expeditionary unit it was attached to, saying better decision making and a more effective survey of the landing site might have prevented disaster.
The Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization program, or NATOPS, would ultimately recommend pilots spend no more than 35 seconds at a time hovering in reduced-visibility conditions.
Suit to Name Suppliers
But Mike Andrews, an attorney with the Montgomery, Alabama-based law firm Beasley Allen who represents the Determan family, said the problem lies solely with the Osprey. Andrews confirmed he is preparing a lawsuit against Osprey manufacturer Boeing Co. on behalf of the Determans, asking for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. The suit, which he said will also name other manufacturers of V-22 parts, will be filed in Hawaii in coming weeks, though Andrews said he had not determined whether to file it in federal or state court.
Boeing spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson declined to comment on the pending litigation.
"I can tell you that this is an unsafe aircraft," Andrews said. "Our feeling in this case is, our military boys and girls need to have the best equipment possible, and the V-22 is not it."
He was previously involved in a 2002 lawsuit against Osprey manufacturers Boeing, Textron's Bell Helicopter unit, and BAE's U.S. subsidiary following a December 2000 Osprey crash near Jacksonville, North Carolina, which killed all four Marines aboard.
"This is a situation in which we feel the Marine Corps, the military in general, is doing the best they can with a defective product," Andrews said. "They've been sold a bill of goods and they're trying to work with it. It's inexcusable."
A September report from Naval Air Systems Command generated in response to the Bellows crash underscores Mike Determan's contention that Osprey power loss during reduced visibility landings is far from an isolated incident. The report, obtained by Military.com, highlights three other such events dating back to 2013, one involving the CV-22 Air Force variant of the aircraft.
- Two years prior to Bellows on Aug. 26, 2013, a Marine Corps Osprey crashed after experiencing engine compressor stall in a brownout near Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, according to the report. All four crew members walked away, but the aircraft was damaged beyond repair, according to officials.
- On Feb. 24, 2015, another disaster was narrowly avoided when a deployed Marine V-22 experienced engine compressor stall in reduced visibility conditions, then recovered and successfully returned to base. Since no mishap occurred, this incident was never reported publicly.
- On Dec. 1, 2013, an Air Force CV-22 operating out of North Africa experienced a compressor stall shortly after landing in brownout conditions, resulting in a Class C mishap, signifying damages between $50,000 and $500,000.
The report also found six additional undocumented aircraft power loss incidents in areas that contained "reactive sand," or sand containing high levels of elements with low melting points. It also found that a second Osprey at Bellows on May 17 had experienced a "near-miss," though it ultimately avoided stall in the sand cloud.
Determan said he believes the Marine Corps deserves some of the blame for the Bellows crash because officials were slow to apply lessons learned from previous MV-22 stalls in brownout conditions.
"They knew that there was a problem with restricted visibility; they knew it from Creech Air Force Base a year prior," Determan said. "To send my son and the other Marines in that morning knowing that the sand is reactive and it's very dangerous … by not doing the pre-work, they're just putting these guys at huge risk."
A former V-22 test pilot who spoke with Military.com under condition of anonymity because he is well known in the aviation community said the Osprey is uniquely susceptible to ingestion of sand and dust, which can melt at high temperatures inside the engine, changing airflow and making the engine less efficient. Because the aircraft can fly like an airplane and then tilt its rotors skyward for take-off and landing like a helicopter, its engine inlets are vertical as it descends, the pilot said, making it even more vulnerable to dust intake.
"The Osprey ingests one hell of a lot of dirt and sand," the test pilot said, adding that the aircraft had higher disc loading than other helicopters, meaning its smaller rotors had to pump a larger volume of air at a higher velocity. "You hover over that sand and you make one hell of a mess."
Mike Determan has a solution for the Marine Corps: Ground the Osprey until a third-generation tiltrotor, the Bell V-280 Valor, is ready to deploy. That aircraft will not have prototypes ready for a first test flight until 2017, and it's not yet clear what the Corps' fielding or purchasing plans with regard to the V-280 might be.
A Marine Corps spokeswoman, Capt. Sarah Burns, said the service has no plans to ground the MV-22, which is quickly becoming the centerpiece of its strategy for crisis response and long-range lift.
"By its very nature, there will always be inherent risk in combat aviation. This is due to the expeditionary nature of U.S. Marine Corps operations and the varied types of missions we fly," Burns said.
"When mishaps occur we diligently investigate them, and we are transparent with regards to the findings of each investigation," she added. "In this investigation there were no indications that there is an issue beyond that of the aircraft involved and consequently did not lead to a determination that a grounding of the fleet would be warranted."
According to figures provided by Burns, the Osprey's Class A mishap rate, which is calculated based on mishaps involving loss of life or $2 million or more in damage, is roughly in line with or better than comparable aircraft platforms.
Since fiscal 2010, the Osprey has a mishap rate of 3.06 per 100,000 flight hours, Burns said, compared with 3.63 for the CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter; 3.09 for the CH-46 "Phrog" retired by the Marines last year; 4.18 for the UH-1 N Twin Huey and Y Venom choppers; and 1.54 for the AH-1 Z Viper and W Super Cobra. These figures, however, don't take into account the Jan. 15 tragedy in which two CH-53E Super Stallions collided off the coast of Oahu, killing all 12 Marines aboard.
Marine Corps leaders have staunchly supported the V-22 as the revolutionary future of Marine Corps aviation, along with the brand-new F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. Recent experiments have highlighted the Osprey's ability to cover long distances at high speeds for raids and inserts; a squadron of Ospreys is now deployed to the Middle East with the Marines' crisis response force in the region for personnel recovery missions and support of the coalition fight against Islamic State militants.
'Where are the Ospreys?'
"The question used to be, 'Where's the carrier? Where's the [amphibious ready group/Marine expeditionary unit]?'" Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11. "Now the question is, 'Where are the Ospreys?'"
Still, some worry that the Osprey may prove increasingly fragile as it replaces other workhorse Marine Corps rotary-wing platforms and weathers more years of deployment wear and tear.
The fact that Naval aviation was still learning about the Osprey's vulnerabilities and attempting to mitigate them more than eight years after the aircraft was first deemed deployable in 2007 was a function of the platform's complexity, the pilot said.
"[Ospreys are] encountering things, they're going places they have not been before" as the Marine Corps becomes more dependent on the platform, the pilot said. Despite Osprey deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2007, the pilot characterized the aircraft's use to date as "ash and trash" -- transportation and lift, rather than combat.
"You can't go into a hot [landing zone] with the aircraft. If you do, you'll break it," he said. "The aircraft has never been tested to do the extreme maneuvering.'
The level of complexity in the tiltrotor aircraft increases the number of "unk-unks" -- unknown unknowns -- which are very difficult to test for, the test pilot said. And that doesn't sit well with Determan, who fears more Marines may be lost to tragic mishaps as new vulnerabilities come to light.
"Nobody really knows how the airframe is going to react when it gets older and older," Determan said. "Learn from the mistakes and make a better aircraft, and don't hold back on the cost."