Rep. Jones, widows seek exoneration for Marine pilots in 2000 Osprey crash

For a dozen years, two widows say, the Marines have unfairly blamed their husbands for the death of 19 Marines in a fiery V-22 Osprey crash.

Connie Gruber and Trish Brow have been fighting to get the Marines to say their husbands, pilots Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow, should not be blamed for the April 2000 crash when the tiltrotor aircraft rolled over sideways trying to land in a training exercise.

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Their cause has been championed by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who has lobbied the Marines for a decade to remove “human factors” as a cause and say the pilots weren’t at fault.

“I have children who are 19 and 20 now, and they deserve that for their father,” Trish Brow said in an interview.

But Jones’s efforts have failed to persuade Marine leaders, who say there’s no reason to change the crash report, which found numerous factors contributed to the accident, including human ones.

“The Marine Corps is unaware of any new evidence in the case and therefore has no basis to second-guess the judgments of the many professionals who were involved,” a spokesman for Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said in a statement. “We believe this matter to be closed.”

Jones, who has met with both Amos and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus about the crash, vows to continue his fight. He brought it up when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified in the House Armed Services Committee last month, and told The Hill he’s considering going to the White House and Vice President Biden.

“I either will die, or I’ll be defeated” before dropping the wives’ cause, Jones said. “It’s just the right thing to do. It’s just that simple to me. The families deserve this.”

Producers for “60 Minutes,” which did a story on the Osprey crashes and falsified test data in 2001, met with Jones to consider a follow-up piece on the wives’ ordeal.

Jones said the Marines’ investigation report actually exonerates the pilots — it was the Marines’ statement about the investigation that sparked the “pilot error” blame.

“Unfortunately, the pilots’ drive to accomplish that mission appears to have been the fatal factor,” the release said.

That statement led to years of press accounts that said pilot error was the cause of the crash, Gruber and Brow say. They are asking the Marines to issue a statement that says the two pilots “were not at fault” and include it in the accident report.

As Jones stepped up efforts to clear the pilots’ names last year, he solicited letters from the three crash investigators, all of whom wrote that the pilots should not be blamed for the crash.

Documents reviewed by The Hill and interviews with those involved show the circumstances surrounding the accident do not lead to simple conclusions. While the pilots took actions that contributed to the crash, they and their superiors did not yet understand the flight condition called “vortex-ring state” (VRS) that caused the Osprey to roll over and crash.

“The consequences of something like that happening were unknown,” retired Lt. Col. Mike Morgan, the lead investigator of the accident investigation, said in an interview. “Unfortunately, in aviation, sometimes it takes something like that to happen before fixes are designed into airplanes.”

The accident occurred during a night mission in Marana, Ariz., with 17 Marine passengers on board. Following the lead aircraft’s steep line into the landing zone, Brooks and Gruber descended too rapidly, causing one of the rotors to enter VRS and stop rotating, which flipped the Osprey upside down.

Morgan said the incident prompted further testing to find the limits of the Osprey’s descent ability, and a warning system was later added to the aircraft.

The investigation report said: “We found nothing that we would characterize as negligence, deliberate pilot error or maintenance/material failure.”

“If you ask, legally, did pilot error contribute to the mishap? You would have to say yes, it did,” Morgan said. “But as the years go by and everything that has gone on in the program, I don’t think it’s fair to pin it on pilot error.”

Morgan said he “was very disappointed” when the Marines’ press release pointed to the pilots.

But some who were involved don’t think the Marines should change their report. Retired Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, former Marine aviation chief, said while the crash was heartbreaking, the pilots’ actions still led to the tragedy.

“To me, it was human factors,” McCorkle said in an interview. “That’s what I’ve told the family, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”

The crash occurred at a time when the future of the Osprey — which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane — was in doubt.

Following another Osprey crash in December 2000 and reports that test data had been falsified, the Pentagon temporarily suspended flights and created a commission to examine its future.

Jones says he supports the Osprey program, but that the two pilots should not be punished for past testing and design problems.

Gruber first reached out to Jones in 2002, and a year later Jones sent a letter asking for the Marines to remove “human factor error” from the report.

In 2004, then-Marine Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee wrote that the report did not identify a primary cause in the crash and it didn’t need altering.

Letters were exchanged over the next several years, as separate lawsuits for the 17 Marines and the pilots were settled with Bell Helicopter and Boeing, the Osprey’s manufacturers.

Jones has amplified his efforts since 2009, introducing a House resolution on the crash and gathering a team of supporters and evidence.

“The more I got involved, the more I learned, the more I believed these two men should be totally exonerated,” Jones said.

The Marines remain unconvinced. In his last letter to Jones in 2011, Amos wrote: “I cannot prevent outside observers from using unflattering characterizations about these pilots.”

Jones disagrees. “You give the wives the one paragraph, and they’ll take care of it,” he said.

Gruber and Brow say they continue the fight because of their children, as they don’t want a cloud hanging over their fathers’ deaths.

“We do not continue with this 12-year mission due to bitterness,” Gruber said. “We do this for the men who can no longer speak for themselves.”