|Don Harvel, near his home in Georgia.|
What Harvel discovered about the controversial hybrid aircraft drew him into a battle of wills with his superiors at Air Force Special Operations Command. Harvel, then a brigadier general, uncovered evidence of mechanical problems — and resulting safety woes — in the V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane. These are issues the Pentagon has been eager to downplay. So when Harvel refused to alter his findings to match the Defense Department’s expectations, he knew that was the final chapter of his decades-long military service. Harvel’s long-planned retirement was held up for more than two years, effectively silencing him during a troubling chapter in the Osprey’s often-troubled history.
“I turned [my report] in and I knew that my career was done,” Harvel says.
Despite three decades of development costing billions of dollars, the V-22 is still not nearly as safe as its proponents insist. In the past year alone, the military has assigned full blame for two Osprey crashes – one of them fatal – on pilot error. Those calls were questionable, at best. The Pentagon and the V-22′s manufacturers likewise dismissed concern over two emergency landings by stricken Ospreys. All the while, Harvel had to keep quiet.
No longer. In an exclusive interview, Harvel says the military is “trying to turn all eyes away” from the Osprey’s ongoing safety woes. “Especially in Congress.”
After all, Congress controls funding for the $36-billion V-22 program, and has the power to finance (or not) the U.S. Marines and Air Force as they work to more than triple their Osprey fleets. The military is beginning to rely on the temperamental but high-performance tiltrotors for a wider range of important missions; there’s even talk of Ospreys hauling the White House entourage on presidential trips. The Pentagon has also laid out a controversial plan to base 24 Ospreys in Japan. The Defense Department insisted that the speedy, long-range tiltrotor is “critical” to its Pacific war plans, but Japanese officials have justifiably questioned the V-22′s safety.
Harvel’s retirement paperwork finally cleared a few weeks ago. Now, the former Texas Air National Guard C-130 pilot is free to publicly share his opinion about the Osprey: that it’s “just not quite there yet.” The two crashes and another incident this year are proof of that.
“We need to invest money to fix this thing or change the way we’re operating it,” Harvel says. But the Pentagon has other priorities, he adds. “One of the things that is most noticeable to me is the military trying to get the [Air Force] CV- and [Marine] MV-22 to the forefront to get as much positive publicity as possible.”
On April 9, 2010, an Osprey assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command was preparing to drop off a squad of U.S. Army Rangers in southern Afghanistan when something went wrong. The tiltrotor was traveling at least 88 miles per hour — several times the recommended landing speed — when it smashed into the ground a quarter mile from the landing zone. Four people died.
A sudden tailwind could have been a factor, but there’s another possible explanation: that the Osprey’s engines had malfunctioned in mid-air. Video shot by an A-10 attack plane overhead showed puffs of exhaust coming from the V-22′s nacelles, a sign that the crew was trying to restart non-working engines.
After a brief recovery operation, an A-10 bombed the wreckage to keep it out of militants’ hands. The air strike destroyed the tiltrotor’s black box. That, plus memory loss by Brian Luce, the only survivor from the two-man cockpit, ensured that the crash investigation board would face a difficult task.
At the time, Harvel was a full-time airline pilot and part-time assistant to the chief of Air Force Special Operations Command. Since getting his pilot’s wings in 1976, he had racked up an impressive 4,000 flight hours in OH-58 helicopters, T-37 and T-38 training jets and C-130s.
“I got a call from the vice commander [Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski] saying we’re considering you for board president and asking if I would be willing take time off,” Harvel says. “I had been to all the safety schools and said I would love to do that. I was familiar with the V-22 aircraft, having flown in the simulator a few times. They knew me at AFSOC and were comfortable with me — that was a real big deal to them.”
Harvel recruited a team of technical experts and requested permission to travel to Afghanistan; he was determined to see the wreckage for himself and talk to survivors while their memories were still fresh.
But Cichowski shot down the request. “He said ‘you don’t need to go to Afghanistan,’” Harvel recalls. “That was my first clue this wasn’t going to be a standard investigation.” But Harvel kept arguing for permission to travel and ultimately got the green light. In whirlwind six-day trip, Harvel and his team interviewed 100 witnesses to the crash and its aftermath.
Weighing all the evidence, Harvel’s board concluded that, among 10 possible contributing factors, engine failure was the most likely cause of the crash. But after reviewing a draft of the report, Cichowski allegedly ordered Harvel to remove the reference to the engines. “I don’t know why he … would not keep an open mind,” Harvel says. “I do know this would have brought the [V-22] weapon system under more scrutiny.”
The Air Force insists Cichowski did not put pressure on Harvel. “Undue influence, real or perceived, by the convening authority or its staff is specifically prohibited by regulation,” says Capt. Kristen Duncan, an AFSOC spokesperson. “The AIB operated autonomously throughout the investigation, and the command has full confidence in the integrity, veracity and due diligence of the Accident Investigation Board.”
In any event, Harvel refused to alter the report. ”I had planned to retire, anyhow,” Harvel recalls, “so I expedited it. And said I was standing by to brief the families [of crash victims] and he [Cichowski] said, ‘you’re not going to do that.’” (Other Air Force officials talked to the families instead, Duncan says.)
Cichowski commissioned some Navy engineers to produce another crash report. The Navy investigators did not travel to Afghanistan. Harvel says the Air Force’s official rebuttal to Harvel’s report reflected Cichowski’s pre-determined view.
Duncan says the Navy experts weighed additional evidence that became available after Harvel’s investigation had closed. On that grounds, “the convening authority disagreed that engine power loss was supported by the greater weight of credible evidence,” according to the rebuttal.
What explanation did Cichowski offer as an alternative? None, really. The investigative board “was unable to determine, by clear and convincing evidence, the cause of this mishap,” the Air Force stated.
Harvel wanted to offer his opinion in public. But for more than two years, Harvel was stuck in a holding pattern, awaiting his retirement papers — and anticipating the moment when he would be able to speak freely about the V-22.
In a Hurry
To be fair, Harvel says he is a fan of the concept behind the hybrid aircraft, which combines the range and cruising speed of a fixed-wing airplane with a helicopter’s ability to take off and land in tight spaces. “I love what the V-22 is designed to do,” Harvel says. But, he adds, the Osprey was “really rushed through testing and evaluation.”
“Rushed” might not seem like the right word to describe any aspect of the V-22′s development, which kicked off in the early 1980s and produced flyable prototypes as early as 1989. But that was the Osprey version 1.0, an overweight, devilishly complex and badly misunderstood aircraft — and a widowmaker. Four Ospreys crashed between 1991 and 2000, killing 30 people.
The Pentagon sent manufacturers Bell and Boeing back to the drawing board. Engineers revamped the V-22′s leaky hydraulics and installed new flight-control software to help handle the tiltrotor’s tricky aerodynamics. In 2005, a new version of the Osprey debuted and quickly passed Pentagon test requirements. In 2007, the tiltrotor deployed to Iraq for its first wartime use. The Air Force and Marines together ordered more than 400 copies.
The new and improved V-22 went from final testing to combat in just two years. By Pentagon standards, that’s fast.
It’s this Osprey version 2.0, whose reputation the military is desperate to protect. The Marines describe the revamped tiltrotor as their “safest tactical rotorcraft” and offer up stats to prove it — specifically, an official rate of serious flying accidents of just 1.3 per 100,000 flight hours, compared to 2.6 crashes per 100,000 hours for all other rotorcraft.
But the stats reflect altered and miscategorized data. Engine fires clearly costing millions of dollars to fix were downgraded in the paperwork. One malfunction that resulted in a V-22 accidentally taking off uncommanded before crashing to the ground was labeled a ground incident and left off the record. Even leaving out the 1991-2000 crashes, the Osprey’s crash rate before this year’s accidents was roughly double the officially stated figure, making the V-22 no safer than the Marines’ conventional helicopters and far, far more dangerous than its fixed-wing cargo planes.
And that’s mostly due to inadequate testing, Harvel claims. “In their hurry to get this thing painted in a positive light for Congress, some things are coming back to haunt them,” he says of the V-22′s supporters.
But in addition to tweaking the safety stats, Osprey boosters have a sure-fire method of masking the flaws in the V-22′s development, one that was evident following the 2010 Afghanistan crash and can be summed up in three simple words:
The Blame Game
After Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski overruled Harvel’s report blaming the 2010 fatal crash on engine failure, the Air Force offered up pilot error as a “substantially contributing factor.” The same shift in blame, from machine to crew, can be seen in this year’s V-22 accidents.
On April 11, Marine V-22s took part in a training exercise in Morocco. While slowly turning to avoid flying over some tents, the crew of one V-22 encountered a confluence of dangerous conditions that at the time was unknown to the Osprey developers. A stiff tailwind forced down the tiltrotor’s nose and shifted its center of gravity. The aircraft tumbled out of control and smashed into the ground, injuring the two-man flight crew and killing two crew chiefs standing in the cargo hold.
In August the Marines announced the results of the crash investigation board. “A series of imprecise decisions and actions in the cockpit” led to the crash, the investigators concluded. But they advised the Corps to take “no administrative or disciplinary action” against the pilots. Instead, the Marines shouldupdate the Osprey’s flight manual to address the dangers of turning at low speed and with a tailwind, the board recommended.
But the tailwind problem was identified in Bell’s smaller BA609 tiltrotor “years ago,” according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The same phenomenon might have turned up in testing of the similar-but-larger V-22, too, had the Pentagon not been in a hurry to clear the revamped warbird for frontline use.
Two months later on June 13, two Air Force V-22s were flying in formation over a Florida training range when the crew of one aircraft “inadvertently” steered into the turbulent wake of the other. The pilot lost control and the Osprey plummeted to the ground. The aircraft was destroyed but everyone aboard survived. Coincidentally, Brian Luce, the only cockpit survivor of the April 2010 crash, was also co-pilot during the June incident.
The subsequent crash report, published in August, claimed that the pilot, Capt. Brett Cassidy, “did not maintain the required 25 feet of vertical separation” while flying in formation with another V-22. But the investigators admitted that “CV-22 wake modeling is inadequate for a trailing aircraft to make accurate estimations of safe separation from the preceding aircraft.”
Again, the flight manual was incomplete. The crew “did the best they could do with limited training and the limited information in the operations manual,” Harvel says.
As with the Morocco incident, the circumstances of the Florida crash should have been explored years ago during the Osprey’s pre-service evaluation. Harvel says the Osprey testers actually did begin looking into formation turbulence. “They realized this was a big issue but weren’t allowed finish.”
Despite the V-22′s long history of crashes and its known mechanical and aerodynamic complexity, in the minds of Pentagon planners expediency trumped safety. The result in these cases: a pair of destroyed tiltrotors and two dead airmen. But as long as the military can convincingly blame the recent crashes on the pilots and not the plane, the V-22 appears to be a safer design than it actually is.
Working Out the Bugs
Other recent incidents were thankfully less cataclysmic, but are still worrying. On April 11, the same day as the Morocco crash, a V-22 made an emergency landing in a field near the Texas factory where the tiltrotors are produced. And on July 9 in North Carolina, a V-22 pilot reported engine trouble and set down at the Wilmington airport.
These emergency landings were, in essence, pre-crashes — and indicative of the Osprey’s ongoing safety woes, in particular its temperamental engines. “At no time during the precautionary landing was there any danger,” Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Eric Flanagan insisted. “The MV-22 is a highly-capable aircraft with an excellent safety record,” he added.
But that record is a willful misrepresentation of the V-22′s true complexity, its tendency to crash and the risks — some long known, others newly discovered — incumbent in flying it. “Those bugs should have been worked through,” Harvel says of the specific flaws that led to this year’s crashes.
They weren’t worked through until aircraft had burned and, in one case, men had died.
Today the Marines and Air Force are rapidly adding V-22s to their frontline fleets — in the U.S. and at an American base in Japan — without having fully addressed the tiltrotor’s safety woes, though last month the Pentagon did solicit bids for an engine-improvement program. Only a relentless spin campaign disguises the Osprey’s dangers. And anyone who dares to call out the military for failing to resolve the problems could suffer the same silencing and reprisal that Harvel did.
Harvel’s career took some pummeling from the V-22′s protectors. Now that he’s finally free to talk, he says he’s only “disappointed” in the way his military service ended. The real victims, current and potential, are the V-22′s crews, passengers and anyone standing beneath the finicky tiltrotors as they fly overhead.