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Blaming Pilots, Instead of the Machine

Are military accident investigation reports objective or are the conclusions of some reports being bent to blame pilots rather than flaws with expensive, highly controversial weapons systems?

The recently released Air Force report detailing the conclusions of an investigation into the fatal crash of an F-22 in November 2010 is coming under such criticism. As the Los Angeles Times’ W.J. Hennigan reported yesterday:

Last week's report generated much debate over whether the Air Force turned Haney, an experienced and award-winning aviator, into a scapegoat to escape more criticism of the F-22.

Haney "most likely experienced a sense similar to suffocation," the report said. "This was likely [Haney's] first experience under such physiological duress."

To save himself and the plane, Haney should have leaned over and with a gloved hand pulled a silver-dollar-size green ring that was under his seat by his left thigh to engage the emergency system, the report said.

It takes 40 pounds of pull to engage the emergency system. That's a tall order for a man who has gone nearly a minute without a breath of air, speeding faster than sound, while wearing bulky weather gear, said Michael Barr, a former Air Force fighter pilot and former accident investigation officer.

"It would've taken superhuman efforts on the pilot's behalf to save that aircraft," he said. "The initial cause of this accident was a malfunction with the aircraft -- not the pilot."

Barr said the Air Force blamed Haney because the brass doesn't want more criticism of the F-22 program, which will cost an estimated $77 billion and whose need was called into question even before its first test flight.

"They've taken all the heat they want to," Barr said. "They paid a lot of money for an aircraft that doesn't work."

Questions have also been raised about accident reports involving the V-22 Osprey, which is used both by the Marine Corps and the Air Force. Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel, who investigated the April 2010 crash of an Air Force V-22, told the Air Force Times that “There was absolutely a lot of pressure to change my report.”

And Harvel was overruled. As Wired’s David Axe recounted in an article this fall:

Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Donald Harvel, the lead accident investigator, concluded that engine failure was the likely cause. But his boss, Lt. Gen. Kurt Cichowski, vice chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, overruled Harvel. “The convening authority disagreed that engine power loss was supported by the greater weight of credible evidence,” the Air Force concluded.

What explanation did Cichowski offer as an alternative? None, really. The investigative board “was unable to determine, by clear and convincing evidence, the cause of this mishap,” the Air Force stated. But the flying branch did mention pilot error as a “substantially contributing factor.”

Harvel, who retired a month after the release of the full, final accident report (.pdf), cried foul: “My heart and brain said it was not pilot error. I stuck with what I thought was the truth.” The pressure on Harvel echoes at least two occasions when Marine officers told Osprey mechanics to falsify records in order to downplay the tiltrotor’s mechanical problems.

This isn’t the first time V-22 pilots have been blamed when investigators thought that problems with the tilt-rotor aircraft itself were the root cause of the accident. As POGO’s Dana Liebelson wrote in a story highlighting Rep. Walter Jones’ (R-NC) valiant efforts to clear the names of two Marine Corps pilots who died in a 2000 crash of the V-22:

…technical problems with the aircraft and its flight envelope were especially not well understood back in 2000 when the Arizona crash occurred, according to William Lawrence, who was in charge of testing the V-22s from 1985 to 1988. In a letter he wrote to Jones, Lawrence said he was “convinced [the crash] was the result of poor design and possible inadequate training.” He added that the flight crew, composed of Lieutenant Colonel John A. Brow and Major Brooks S. Gruber, “could not have understood the actions necessary to prevent the crash.”

Lawrence’s concerns were backed up by the three Marine investigators who were responsible for establishing findings from the crash. According to their investigation, the “asymmetric vortex ring state” (VRS)—a hazardous condition encountered in helicopters, which can derail a controlled landing—was the cause of the crash. The report said that there was no warning of VRS in the pilots’ manual, and Bell/Boeing didn’t fully test for this “dangerous design flaw.” 

“The accident aircraft was under control until the moment the right prop-rotor lost lift, after which the roll was unrecoverable,” said the investigators’ report.

What should be done? Congress should consider holding hearings. It also should ask the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates accidents in commercial aviation and other transportation sectors, to review these questionable conclusions. NTSB’s investigations have an excellent reputation for independence, something that may be lacking in military accident investigations.

By: Nick Schwellenbach
Director of Investigations, POGO

Nick Schwellenbach At the time of publication, Nick Schwellenbach was Director of Investigations for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: National Security

Related Content: F/A-22 Fighter Aircraft, Defense, Waste

Authors: Nick Schwellenbach

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