Corps cites software failure in Osprey crash

After the hydraulic line on their V-22 Osprey aircraft ruptured, the four Marines on board had 30 seconds to fix the problem or perish.

Following established procedures, when the reset button on the Osprey's primary flight control system lit up, one of the pilots — either Lt. Col. Mi-chael Murphy or Lt. Col. Keith Sweaney — pushed it. Nothing happened. But as the button was pushed eight to 10 times in 20 seconds, a software failure caused the tilt-rotor aircraft to swerve out of control, stall and then crash near Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Killed in the Dec. 11 crash were Murphy and Sweaney — two of the Corps' most experienced Osprey pilots — along with Staff Sgt. Avely Runnels and Sgt. Jason Buyck.

"The aircrew reacted immediately and correctly to the in-flight emergency, as they were trained to do. We consider them to be without fault in this tragedy," said Maj. Gen. Martin Berndt, commander of the II Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The crash was caused by "a hydraulic system failure compounded by a computer software anomaly," he said. Berndt released the results of a Corps legal investigation into the crash at an April 5 Pentagon press briefing.

The aircraft "was in excellent shape," he said. "There were no maintenance problems with it. Everybody had done everything right."

Berndt didn't know what caused the software failure or why it wasn't detected during the V-22's operational testing, but the Corps wants the Naval Air Systems Command and the Osprey's manufacturers — Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. — to examine and test the entire software system. Spokesmen for Boeing and the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River, Md., declined comment, say-ing officials had not reviewed the investigation yet.

The crash occurred just days before Pentagon officials were to decide whether to put the V-22 — a revolutionary hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but can fly like a plane — into full-scale production. But fatal crashes, investigations and negative publicity have dogged the Osprey program during the past year.

In addition to the Dec. 11 crash, a crash in April 2000 killed all 19 Marines on board. And in January, the Corps relieved the commander of the Osprey squadron, Lt. Col. Odin Leberman, amid allegations that he ordered Marines to falsify maintenance records.

All this has raised doubts about the program in the Defense Department and on Capitol Hill. Now, any decision about full-scale production is on hold pending the findings of a DOD inspector general report and a separate blue-ribbon panel report requested late last year by then-Defense Secretary William Cohen.

The Corps plans to buy 360 V-22s to replace its Vietnam-era helicopters — the CH-46 Sea Knights and CH-53D Sea Stallions. The Osprey can fly up to 2,100 nautical miles at twice the speed of current helicopters and can carry more weight.

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