When an Air Force CV-22 Osprey loaded with troops crashed in Afghanistan eight months ago it lacked a required cockpit voice recorder that could have helped investigators conclusively prove the cause of the disaster.
The deadly crash came seconds after a heated conversation in the cockpit and a decade after Congress directed the Defense Department to equip all Ospreys with cockpit voice recorders. But Ospreys lack that capability today because DOD left the requirement unfunded for years, Inside the Pentagon has found. And while the Air Force recently made plans to put voice recorders on its CV-22s next year, the Marine Corps -- which flies most of DOD's Ospreys -- has no similar plans for its MV-22s, a Marine Corps spokesman said.
The April 9 crash killed four, injured 16 and destroyed a multimillion-dollar aircraft. In the darkness of early morning, the Osprey rolled on its landing gear for about 45 feet before the nose hit a small, two-foot deep, natural drainage ditch that flipped the aircraft tail over nose. The Accident Investigation Board, led by now-retired Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel, could not pinpoint the crash's cause. The CV-22's flight data recorder, which tracks aircraft parameters but not cockpit audio, was presumed destroyed when Air Force personnel unaware of its existence failed to retrieve it before bombing the wreckage on the battlefield. It would have been the best item to recover for the mishap investigation, Harvel told ITP in an interview.
But cockpit voice recordings, he added, could have turned the investigation into a "slam dunk" by revealing whether the pilot's final conversation concerned unexpected mechanical problems. The board concluded that engine trouble, crew errors and weather contributed to the mishap. Harvel maintains mechanical problems likely surfaced just before the crash, but Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, who oversaw the investigation, disagrees.
"Having a cockpit voice recorder, I think, would have really shed some light on if that discussion was related to an aircraft mechanical problem that they were working, or if it was related to them being really fast and having this tailwind and discussing possible options on whether they needed to go around and reset up for the approach," Harvel said. "It would have definitely tilted [the investigation findings] either toward pilot error, loss of situation awareness or a mechanical malfunction that they were working. It would have been an absolute slam-dunk solution."
Interviews with survivors suggest the aircraft had a problem during or prior to the last 22 seconds of flight, Harvel writes in the addendum to the board's report. A flight engineer in the rear of the aircraft recounted hearing an excited cockpit conversation of "something catastrophically going wrong with the airplane . . . between the one-minute call and the impact," Harvel notes. The copilot, who suffered memory loss for many key events, explained that this conversation could have been triggered by the pilot realizing that something was "wrong with the airplane" or a "high sink rate" close to the ground that was "going to end badly," the report states. And one of the troops said the pilot had told those aboard that something was wrong with the aircraft during the final portion of the flight, Harvel writes.
Harvel told ITP that "crucial" video of the mishap aircraft taken from another plane just before the crash shows mist coming off both engines, a sign the engines might have been "compressor stalling." And the speed at which the aircraft hit the ground, indicated by the proprotor markings on the ground, suggests it was not operating at full power, he said. But it remains unclear if the flight crew discussed such issues because the pilot and a flight engineer were killed, the copilot suffered amnesia and the cockpit conversation was not recorded.
The Fiscal Year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act says the defense secretary "shall require" that all Ospreys be equipped with a state-of-the-art cockpit voice recorder and a state-of-the-art flight data recorder, each of which meets National Transportation Safety Board standards. But Congress added no funding to DOD's budget for the requirement. After the law was passed, DOD produced Osprey requirements documents stating the need for the voice recorder, but neither the Air Force nor the Marine Corps funded the initiative for years due to other priorities, officials confirmed.
In an interview, V-22 program manager Marine Col. Greg Masiello said that funding recently became available to put cockpit voice recorders on CV-22s, but for MV-22s it remains an unfunded requirement.
"Voice recording through the mission data recorder is an approved performance capability for the V-22, but was not immediately funded due to fiscal constraints and higher priority warfighter requirements," said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Jack Miller. For the same reason, the Marine Corps has not funded plans to introduce the capability, said Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Brian Block. "An issue sheet for a voice recorder" is submitted for consideration in each programming cycle and competes for funding with other priorities, Block said.
The Air Force plans to begin installing cockpit voice recorders on its CV-22 Ospreys in 2011 in response to a formal requirement that Air Force Special Operations Command submitted to the program office in 2008, said spokeswoman Capt. Kristen Duncan. The command is in the process of replacing the current V-22 flight data recorder with a newer version -- the Model K Voice And Data Recorder, referred to as K-VADR. The plan includes the retrofit of existing aircraft beginning in the spring 2011. Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing will deliver new CV-22s with the new version of the flight data recorder starting in February 2011. Bell-Boeing spokesman Andy Lee declined to comment.
The board never got to see the mishap aircraft's flight data recorder, or even pictures of it, Harvel told ITP. In a Dec. 21 call with reporters, Air Force Special Operations Command Vice Commander Brig. Gen. Otis Mannon said the command has no plans to revisit the crash site to see if the device survived the bombing of the wreckage. "Well, it was very strange to me that it was not recovered and that it was just obliterated," a maintenance official told the board, according to the report. A pilot told the board that CV-22 guidance to pilots did not clearly say whether the recorder existed. The Air Force secretary's office has been preparing new guidance stressing the need to collect crash-survivable information for mishap investigations, according to internal documents. -- Christopher J. Castelli