WASHINGTON -- U.S. Marine Corps pilots Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow were incorrectly blamed as the primary cause of a V-22 Osprey crash that took their lives and killed 17 other Marines in April 2000, the Pentagon said Tuesday in an unusual reversal clearing the pilots' names.
Gruber and Brow's Osprey crashed in Marana, Arizona, on April 8, 2000, during a nighttime combat scenario test flight.
At the time, little was known about the limits of safe flight for the innovative tilt-rotor Osprey, which could perform like a helicopter and an airplane. The Osprey program was under intense pressure to show progress to avoid having its budget cut, and subsequent investigations by the Government Accountability Office found that the Navy reduced the amount of testing the Osprey's primary contractor had to complete before pushing it into the military's hands.
After a second fatal Osprey crash later that year, the program was temporarily halted. It was declared operational seven years later.
The investigation immediately following the 2000 Marana crash found that decisions that Brow and Gruber made in their rate of descent and air speed before the crash were two of many factors leading to the accident. However when the Marines briefed the media that summer on the crash, "human errors" were characterized as being the primary "fatal factor" leading to the crash.
Those words have haunted the families ever since, and spurred a relentless fight by the pilots' widows, Connie Gruber and Trish Brow, to clear their husbands' names.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon officially stated that blame was inaccurately attributed in 2000.
"While I cannot in good faith overlook that their actions were the last in a long chain of events that ultimately caused the tragic events on April 8, 2000, I believe the links in the chain leading up to the crash made the accident -- or one like it -- probable, or perhaps inevitable," Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work wrote in correspondence released by the Pentagon on Tuesday.
In making his decision, Work reviewed all of the investigations and reports on the crash. He said he agreed with the investigation findings, but disagreed with how those findings were ultimately characterized by the Pentagon and allowed to focus primarily on the pilots.
"The totality of evidence confirms the adage that every accident is the result of an interrelated chain of events .... After considering all of the links in the chain that led to this particular accident, I disagree with the characterization that the pilots' drive to accomplish the mission was "the fatal factor" in the crash."
"Human factors undoubtedly contributed to the Marana accident," Work said. "However, it is clear that there were deficiencies in the V-22's development and engineering and safety programs that were corrected only after the crash -- and these deficiencies likely contributed to the accident and its fatal outcome. I therefore conclude it is impossible to point to a single 'fatal factor' that caused this crash."
"I hope this letter will provide the widows of Lieutenant Colonel Brow and Major Gruber some solace after all of these years in which the blame for the Marana accident was incorrectly interpreted or understood to be primarily attributed to their husbands."
Both Connie Gruber and Trish Brow sent statements late Tuesday celebrating the release of the letter.
When Brooke learned the letter was made official, she asked, " 'Does that mean my daddy's name is cleared?' " Connie Gruber told Stars and Stripes in a statement. "I said, 'Yes, it does!' "
After the crash, Connie Gruber and her daughter Brooke, now 16, remained in the Jacksonville, N.C., community near Marine Corps Air Station New River, where her husband had served. Over the years, Connie Gruber would often hear the Ospreys fly over her home and think of her late husband. On Tuesday, she celebrated his role in the program.
"We are both rejoicing that justice has been done and nearly on the 16th anniversary of the accident," she said. "Brooks Gruber and John Brow can rest in peace."
Since its fielding in 2007, the Osprey has become a mainstay of the Marine Corps' combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, something the families have taken strength from.
In 2002, Connie Gruber enlisted the help of her congressman, Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., to push the Pentagon to review the 2000 crash and clear the pilots. Jones made the cause personal: He made more than 150 speeches on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to raise attention to the cause and repeatedly requested that the military review the case and reverse its earlier statements blaming the pilots.
Both wives said that without his efforts and Work's willingness to review the case, they would still be fighting to clear Brow and Gruber.
"Words cannot describe how much respect the congressman has garnered from our family," Trish Brow said. "It feels like a huge victory for our families that these two men [Jones and Work] went out of their way to capture the truth of the incident."
Jones said he plans to go to the House floor once more, this time in celebration.
"I'll try to get 20 minutes at night, [to make a floor statement.] And I'll again tell the story about these two men, who can now rest in peace. They are no longer seen as the primary reason for the accident."