Congress mandated devices in 2000

McKeon Probes DOD Failure To Field V-22 Cockpit Voice Recorders

March 10, 2011

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Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, plans to investigate why the Defense Department has failed to put cockpit voice recorders on all its V-22 Ospreys a decade after Congress put the requirement in law.

His inquiry comes after a December 2010 report by Inside the Pentagon that the department left the requirement unfunded for years and that the head Air Force investigator of the April 9, 2010, Osprey crash in Afghanistan said such a device could have helped conclusively prove the cause of the disaster.

"Based on your question, we will look into it," McKeon told ITP in a brief March 3 interview.

"Chairman McKeon and members of the committee are concerned about the lack of voice data recorders in our nation's fleet of V-22s," Josh Holly, McKeon's spokesman, added March 9. "The chairman has asked the committee's professional staff to engage with the Marine Corps and Air Force to determine each service's plan going forward to meet the statutory requirement of equipping the MV-22 and CV-22 with voice data recorders. That effort is currently under way."

Senate authorizers are also unhappy that the requirement has not been met. A congressional source said DOD had failed to comply with the law and that is a concern. The defense secretary "fell down on the job," the source said, griping that DOD was supposed to be "watching over this."

The defense secretary should have either ensured that plans included these devices or should have asked for legislative relief for whatever reason he might have chosen, the congressional source said. The failure to realize Congress' goal of putting the voice recorders on all Ospreys spans the tenures of multiple defense secretaries, but falls mostly on the watch of Donald Rumsfeld and his successor Robert Gates.

The law requiring the cockpit voice recorders -- the Fiscal Year 2001 National Defense Authorization Act -- came on the heels of a fatal Marine Corps Osprey crash in April 2000 and was signed into law Oct. 30, 2000, during the twilight of the Clinton administration. Another fatal Osprey crash occurred in December 2000. The next month, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen was succeeded by Rumsfeld, who went on to hold the job for nearly six years until Gates took over in December 2006.

The FY-01 legislation says the defense secretary "shall require" that all Ospreys be equipped with a state-of-the-art cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder, each of which meets National Transportation Safety Board standards. 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.

To this day, no Osprey has a cockpit voice recorder. Air Force Ospreys are slated this year to start receiving the Model K Voice And Data Recorder (K-VADR) but initially it will not have the voice-recording capability enabled, said John Townsend, acting chief of the mobility requirements division in Air Force Special Operations Command's plans and programs branch. This capability will be added in a follow-on engineering change proposal, he said.

"We believe [Naval Air Systems Command] will issue the request for [cockpit voice recorder] integration this year. The completion date will be determined thereafter," Townsend said.

As of late last year, the capability was an unfunded requirement for the Marine Corps, which operates the lion's share of the Pentagon's Osprey fleet. A Marine Corps spokesman could not confirm if that was still the case at press time (March 9). The congressional source said DOD's failure to field the devices is part of a troubling trend.

"There are almost always hiccups when the Congress mandates something that the department wasn't inclined to do in the first place," the congressional source said. "It just depends on what level of pain they are willing to accept."

But if Congress finds the Pentagon this year remains unwilling to fund the requirement for cockpit voice recorders, lawmakers could either "force them to eat it out of hide, add money to the budget or take a hostage until they do it," the source said.

The April 2010 Air Force Osprey crash in Afghanistan killed four people, 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 V-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 (ITP, Dec. 23, 2010, p1).

But cockpit voice recordings, he added, could have turned the investigation into a "slam dunk" by revealing whether the pilot's heated conversation in the final moments of flight 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, disagreed.

"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 in the interview. "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." -- Christopher J. Castelli