Marine Corps inquiry clears Osprey fleet, paves way for Japan operations

A Marine Corps command investigation has cleared the service's V-22 Osprey fleet as fit for duty, paving the way for flight operations based in Japan to begin. 

Senior Japanese defense officials were briefed Wednesday on the findings of a Marine Corps' inquiry into April's Osprey crash in Morocco, Deputy Commandant for Marine Corps Aviation Lt. Gen. Robert Schmidle said Friday. 

The recently completed military investigation, known as a "JAG Manual", found the accident which killed two Marines and seriously injured two others was not due to any major malfunction aboard the Osprey, Schmidle told reporters at the Pentagon. 

"The aircraft did not suffer from any mechanical or material failures,” according to the three-star general, and “there were no issues with the safety of the aircraft." 

The crash was caused by severe tailwinds, blowing upwards of 15 to 20 knots, that ended up blowing the Osprey off track and nose-first into the ground, Schmidle explained. 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto announced on Aug. 8 that U.S-led operations of the V-22 Osprey aircraft would be suspended in the country until Tokyo is satisfied the aircraft are safe to fly.

The first group have been on station at the service air base in Iwakuni since late July, to replace the older CH-46 helicopters flown by Marine Corps units attached to Marine Expeditionary Force III stationed in the region, according to the Pentagon.

The aircraft, built by Bell-Boeing, is designed to take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a fixed-wing plane.

But the planes have remained dormant on U.S. airfields at Iwakuni, pending the DOD's completion of its investigations on the April incident in North Africa and another in Florida two months later. 

In July, an Air Force Osprey crashed during another training mission in Hurlburt Field, Fla., which is home to Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters. 

Five airmen from the 1st Special Operations Wing were injured during that crash. The Pentagon investigation into that accident is still ongoing. 

In both instances, Marine Corps and Air Force leaders decided not to suspend Osprey operations while military officials conducted investigations into the incidents. 

But with Marine Corps officials clearing the Osprey of any fault related to the Morocco crash, top service leaders are pressing ahead with plans to get the V-22 into the skies above Japan. 

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos praised the Osprey's combat record in Iraq and Afghanistan during a recent visit to the Asian nation to discuss future Osprey operations in the region. 

"The airplane has proven its mettle in some of the most demanding environmental conditions imaginable - including having been shot at and hit on several occasions during combat," Amos said in a statement shortly after his visit.

That record, according to Amos, "reflects a rigorous and lengthy design and development process as well as a continuous effort to deliver material improvements, software updates, and enhanced pilot training" into the service's V-22 fleet.

However, reporters pressed Schmidle on Friday on the length and subsequent findings of the five-month long investigation into the North Africa crash. 

The length of the inquiry was standard for fully figuring out the circumstances relating to the crash, the Marine Corps aviation chief said. 

"There's a lot of things that go into that," he explained. "But actually, if you look at a lot of these investigations, that's not really a long time. It was done as quickly in order to be comprehensive as we possibly could." 

Regarding the service's depiction of the factors that contributed to the crash, Schmidle said the Marine Corps' investigation was "very thorough and comprehensive," adding the service's findings were "an accurate depiction of what happened." 

That said, service officials are planning to integrate a host of changes to their training regimen and guidelines governing Osprey flight operations, Schmidle said. 

"You're going to see that happen very, very quickly," he said regarding the pending changes to V-22 flight training and doctrine. "This is a big deal to us … we take this mishap very, very seriously."