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Generals clash on cause of April Osprey crash

Jan. 22, 2011 - 10:12AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 22, 2011 - 10:12AM  |  
Two generals are at odds about the cause of a CV-22 crash in April that killed two of the three cockpit crew members and two passengers. Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel, the accident investigation board's president, believes engine problems were at fault; Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, to whom Harvel answered during the investigation, blames aircrew errors.
Two generals are at odds about the cause of a CV-22 crash in April that killed two of the three cockpit crew members and two passengers. Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel, the accident investigation board's president, believes engine problems were at fault; Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, to whom Harvel answered during the investigation, blames aircrew errors. (Air Force)
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In a rare public display of disunity, two generals are at serious odds over the cause of a fatal aircraft accident.

The April 9 crash in Afghanistan was the first loss of a CV-22 Osprey in combat. Two of the three cockpit crew members — pilot Maj. Randell Voas, 43, and flight engineer Senior Master Sgt. James Lackey, 45 — died attempting a night landing at a desert landing zone. The co-pilot survived; he has not been indentified. Also killed were a soldier and a contractor — two of 16 passengers in the cargo compartment.

Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel, president of the accident investigation board, said he believes engine problems brought down the special operations Osprey on its landing approach. Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, to whom Harvel answered during the investigation, argues aircrew errors caused the crash.

Harvel cited engine problems in his report; Cichowski wrote a dissent that he released with the report Dec. 15.

Cichowski, a fighter pilot, declined to comment on the dispute. He is now the CIA's associate director for military affairs; Harvel, a mobility pilot, spoke with Air Force Times over the telephone Dec. 28 and Jan. 5 from his home near Atlanta. He retired in September from the Air National Guard and now works for Delta Air Lines.

"There was absolutely a lot of pressure to change my report," Harvel said. "My heart and brain said it was not pilot error. I stuck with what I thought was the truth."

Harvel said Air Force Special Operations Command wanted him to cite the cause of the crash as pilot error because AFSOC didn't want old doubts stirred up about the safety of the Osprey program, which had three fatal crashes of prototypes and the Marine Corps variant from 1992 to 2000. The Air Force variant has had one other serious accident, caused when an engine bolt vibrated loose during takeoff. The CV-22, though, managed to land safely.

AFSOC declined to comment on Harvel's accusation. At the time of the April 9 crash and during the investigation, Cichowski was AFSOC's vice commander.

The dispute will never be resolved because no irrefutable evidence exists to substantiate either explanation: no black box and no eyewitness testimony.

The CV-22's flight data recorder probably ended up in little pieces when the service destroyed the Osprey hours after the crash. The airmen and soldiers stripping the wreckage of evidence and classified items before the explosion didn't know the aircraft had a black box, according to the report.

As for firsthand knowledge of what went on inside the cockpit, the surviving co-pilot told investigators he didn't have a clear memory of the flight's last 30 seconds.

Harvel came to his conclusion from watching a video of the CV-22 from a camera onboard an A-10 Thunderbolt that was part of the mission. The footage shows haze coming out of both engines throughout the last 17 seconds of flight; Harvel is convinced the "unidentified contrails," as they are described in the report, are fuel vapors from engines trying to restart. The Air Force did not release the images.

The stresses of flying in the dirt and dust of Afghanistan probably caused the engine problems, Harvel said.

When maintainers checked the power level of the engines April 6, the right one operated at 95.3 percent and left one ran at 99.5 percent. When an engine fell below 95 percent, it had to be repaired or replaced.

After the power check, the Osprey made four more landings at austere sites. On one, the screening system that protected the left engine from blowing sand failed. Each landing would have reduced engine performance, Harvel said.

"Degraded engines could have led to engine failure, surge/stall or insufficient power when a high power demand was required," he said, adding that he believes the aircrew members knew about the engine problems and flew the Osprey as best they could to a rolling landing. The CV-22 touched down at 88 mph, the report said; it should have landed like a helicopter, with little forward speed.

The plane's landing gear absorbed some of the impact, with the tires digging eight inches into the desert sand. The plane rolled and bounced for more than 200 feet until it reached a drainage ditch. As the plane's nose dipped into the ditch, the Osprey flipped over and began breaking apart before coming to a stop 50 feet away.

In his dissent, Cichowski cited several factors ruling out engine failure:

•No one onboard the Osprey or in radio contact with it heard any discussions about engine problems or warnings from the cockpit.

•An analysis of the recovered left engine showed it was working. The right engine was not recovered.

•The V-22 Joint Program Office, which oversees Air Force and Marine Corps Ospreys, concluded engine failure was highly unlikely.

•The crew made several errors, including the pilot flying too high and too fast in his approach; the failure to obtain a weather report warning of a 17 mph tailwind; distraction over unexpected lighting at the landing zone; and self-imposed pressure to make the mission a success.

Typically, the senior officer who convenes the accident investigation board — Cichowski in this case — agrees with the board president's opinion.

If the senior officer disagrees with the report, he can ask the board president to consider new evidence. Usually the review resolves the differences.

Cichowski received Harvel's report Aug. 25. On Sept. 30, Cichowski received an analysis from the joint V-22 Program Office that suggested the report underestimated the CV-22's speed when it crashed.

In a memo dated Oct. 5, Cichowski stated he accepted the report but believed there wasn't enough evidence to support the conclusion that at least one engine malfunctioned.

Next, the report and Cichowski's dissent went to Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, who in the early 1980s served as an MC-130E Combat Talon pilot in the same squadron as the Osprey crew — the 8th Special Operations Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.

On Nov. 15, Schwartz ordered Harvel to review the program office analysis. Harvel spent three days, Nov. 19 to Nov. 21, studying the new information but still came away convinced that engine problems caused the crash.

Despite his strong disagreement with Harvel's conclusion, Cichowski signed off on the report Nov. 23 because Air Force accident investigation rules left him little choice.

With the investigation finally wrapped up, AFSOC leaders began meeting with families and survivors to explain the conclusions. Usually, the board president handles the duty, but Harvel was not invited.

Harvel was not asked to meet with the service members and families because he had retired, said AFSOC spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Villagran.

Harvel sees the exclusion as AFSOC's snub of his opinion.

"I thought that they were very wrong not to let me brief the families," he said. "I had gathered a lot of insight and took extra notes to brief personal stories to each family. I even volunteered to brief the families at no expense to the government. Still, they never even acknowledged me."

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