The US Marine Corps was wrong to say the pilots' actions were the main cause of a crash that killed the two men and 17 others when their V-22 Osprey flipped and hit the ground during training in Arizona nearly 16 years ago, a defense official says.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work released a letter last week citing all the causes of the accident, finally clearing the names of Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow. Gruber, 34, was co-pilot on the flight, and Brow, 39, was the pilot.
"We're just so happy. Just overjoyed and delighted," said Gruber's widow, Connie Gruber, whose fight to erase the blemish on her husband's military service lasted longer than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It's just been years and years, and finally, it was just about finding someone who cares about the truth."
Connie Gruber still lives in Jacksonville with her daughter, Brooke, who was an infant when her father was killed. Gruber enlisted the help of Trish Brow, John Brow's widow, and US Rep. Walter Jones, whose district includes Camp Lejeune and who says the matter became for him a spiritual quest for truth.
Jones became convinced that the Marine Corps had hastened to blame the crash on the pilots in order to protect the Osprey itself, an unconventional and costly airplane-helicopter hybrid that was in the early stages of production and testing when the crash happened.
"They put the blame on the pilots because they were afraid Dick Cheney was going to defund the Osprey program," Jones said, referring to the former secretary of defense, an Osprey critic. "They needed a scapegoat, and the best scapegoat is the man who can't talk, who can't defend himself."
Jones gathered investigative reports, consulted experts, wrote countless letters and asked for military and congressional intervention. Dozens of people who knew the pilots or were familiar with the crash and the investigation also tried to help.
The accident happened on April 8, 2000, during an exercise involving several Ospreys in which the pilots were to "rescue" a group of "hostages" and bring them back to base at an airport in Marana, Ariz.
The task introduced several variables, including night flight, a heavy load of Marines and gear, and a different environment from the one around Camp Lejeune and its training fields in Eastern North Carolina where the Marines had flown the Osprey.
Investigators found that several things went wrong in the Arizona exercise. A computer failed in the lead aircraft, and the pilots, perhaps distracted, failed to descend to the prescribed levels as they approached. They came in too high and began a steep descent, which would have been manageable in a regular helicopter.
But the Osprey, which can fly like a helicopter or an airplane, needed more forward speed. The rotors began to stall. Just 200 feet above the ground, the aircraft rolled to the right and turned upside down, then slammed to the ground.
In July 2000, three months after the crash, the Marine Corps issued a press release that cited several issues but said, "Unfortunately, the pilots' drive to accomplish that mission appears to have been the fatal factor" in the accident. As it got repeated in news reports and documentaries, the statement essentially became the Marine Corps' position on the cause of the accident.
Every time Connie Gruber heard or saw it used, she would call the source and complain. She said she did not want her daughter, who is exploring her interest in the military through a junior high school ROTC program, to inherit that fight.
Work, who spent 27 years in the Marine Corps and became deputy secretary of defense in 2014, agreed last year to look into the matter at Jones' request. In his letter, Work found that while the pilots did violate warning limits prescribed in the preliminary manual for the aircraft, other elements contributed significantly to the fatal outcome.
They included inadequate guidelines for descent rates when the Osprey is traveling at low forward speeds; an inadequate airspeed indication system; inadequate testing of the aircraft that would have revealed more information about the rollover risk under certain landing conditions; and poor coverage and placement in the Osprey manual of the type of problem the pilots encountered that night.
Later, a series of corrections were made to the aircraft and the manuals. Bell Boeing, manufacturer of the Osprey, reached a confidential settlement with the families of those who died in the crash.
Gruber said she is satisfied that Work's letter puts the issue to rest.
"Obviously, it doesn't bring him back," she said. "But it does restore and confirm well-deserved honor. There are no more questions about the accident. There is no more doubt."