Military’s Ospreys are cleared to return to flight, 3 months after latest fatal crash in Japan

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Osprey, a workhorse vital to U.S. military missions, has been cleared to fly again after an “unprecedented” part failure led to the deaths of eight service members in a crash in Japan in November, Naval Air Systems Command announced Friday.

The accident was the second fatality in months and the fourth in two years. It quickly led to a rare fleet-wide grounding of hundreds of Ospreys in the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy.

Before approving the Osprey, which can fly like an airplane and then convert into a helicopter, officials said they paid more attention to the proprotor gearbox, placed new restrictions on how it can be flown and had added maintenance inspections and requirements that gave them confidence that it could be done. return safely to the flight.

The entire fleet was grounded on December 6, just a week after eight Air Force Special Operations Command service members were killed when their CV-22B Osprey crashed off Yakushima Island.

Before lifting flight restrictions, the military also briefed officials in Japan, where public opinion on the Osprey is mixed, about the crash findings and new safety measures. In a statement Friday, Japanese Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said his country would also return its 14 Ospreys to flight status after an “adequate” analysis of the cause of the crash, highly detailed information about the accident and steps to to alleviate the problem in the future. future.

Kihara said Japan and the United States will closely coordinate the timeline for resuming flights in Japan to give the government time to “thoroughly” explain the matter to its citizens.

However, Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki did not support the return to flight. Okinawa is home to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and its 24 MV-22B Ospreys and is where the public has been most vocal in its opposition to the aircraft.

“It would be best if they remain on the ground as we have always asked for the Osprey deployment to be scrapped,” Tamaki said.

Officials briefing reporters on Wednesday ahead of the lifting of flight restrictions said they quickly grounded the entire fleet in December as it became clear that the way the Osprey component failed in that crash was something they had not done before. had seen on the tiltrotor aircraft.

Although officials did not identify the specific component because the Air Force crash investigation is still not complete, they said they now have a better — but not complete — understanding of why it failed.

“This is the first time we have seen this particular component fail in this way. And so this is unprecedented,” said Marine Corps Col. Brian Taylor, V-22 joint program manager at Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, which is responsible for the service-wide V-22 program.

However, the Defense Department’s decision to go back on the run before the conclusion of separate congressional investigations into the Osprey program drew criticism from the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

“DoD is lifting the Osprey ground order despite the Oversight Committee and the American people’s failure to provide answers regarding the safety of this aircraft,” said Representative James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky. “Serious concerns remain, including accountability measures put in place to prevent crashes, a general lack of transparency, how maintenance and operational maintenance are prioritized, and how DoD assesses risk.”

A former Osprey pilot familiar with the investigation confirmed that the part in question is part of the proprotor gearbox, a crucial system that includes transmissions and clutches that connect the Osprey’s engine to the rotor to turn it.

The services have done a “deep dive” into the proprotor gearbox and the new safety measures “will address the issues we saw in that catastrophic event,” Air Force Special Operations Command chief Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind said. Wednesday. .

“I’m confident we now know enough to start flying again,” he said.

The proprotor gearbox system as a whole is a recurring problem area for the Osprey. Service safety data obtained by The Associated Press shows dozens of cases in Marine Corps and Air Force Ospreys where power surges, sudden loss of oil pressure due to leaks, engine fires or chipping — where the metal components in the gearbox sometimes release dangerous metal chips — have damaged the proprotor gearbox during the flight, sometimes requiring an emergency landing.

Other components of the proprotor gearbox, including the sprag clutch and input spring, have been factors in previous crashes, and the services have made changes such as replacing those parts more frequently.

The services also look closely at the material the defective part is made of and how it is manufactured, Bauernfeind said. NAVAIR is also conducting further testing to help the services better understand why the component failed.

“It was a single component that failed in such a way that it had catastrophic consequences,” Bauernfeind said.

After testing is completed, he said, some of the operational safety controls now placed on the Osprey could be reduced “to give us more flexibility with the platform.”

The investigation, known as the Accident Investigation Board, will be made public and is expected to be completed within the next two months.

The proprotor gearbox failure was first reported by NBC News.

Crews have now not flown for more than 90 days – a factor that will make their return to flight more dangerous. The services said Wednesday they are taking a cautious approach that could take anywhere from 30 days to several months to retrain their crews before their Osprey squadrons can return to normal flying.

The Osprey has been in development for four decades, but only became operational in 2007. The U.S. military has flown the Osprey for approximately 750,000 hours, relying on its ability to quickly fly long distances as an aircraft and then convert to a helicopter to conduct operations in the air. Middle East and Africa, where some Marine Corps squadrons were granted a no-fly zone waiver because it was so critical to the mission.

In China’s future needs, the military has made plans to use the Osprey in the Indo-Pacific to operate on islands that lack the airfields needed for traditional aircraft.

But it has also been a controversial design of the first generation of military tiltrotor technology that has caused more than 14 major accidents killing 59 people and in some cases leading to the loss of the aircraft, which cost between 70 and costs $90 million. on the variants.

Neither service is planning new production orders for the V-22, which is produced by a joint venture between Bell Flight and Boeing. The Army has contracted with Bell Flight to purchase the Osprey’s successor, the Bell V-280 Valor, a tiltrotor like the Osprey, but smaller and with a major design change: the engines remain in a fixed, horizontal position. On the Osprey, the rotors and the entire nacelle housing the engine and propeller gearbox tilt to a vertical position when flying in helicopter mode.

The Marine Corps operates the vast majority of Ospreys, with more than 240 currently assigned to its 17 squadrons. Its aviation mission depends on the aircraft’s return to flight, and the Marine Corps aims to keep the Osprey in its fleet through 2050, said Marine Corps Brigadier General for Aviation. General Richard Joyce.

“We can’t take our eyes off the V-22 and the years of service it has ahead of us,” Joyce said.

However, the Air Force, which has the second-most Ospreys in the fleet with about 50 assigned to its special operations mission, suggested Wednesday that it might consider other options.

Early concepts for the Osprey date back to the 1980s, when the Iran hostage crisis revealed the need for an airframe that could move quickly and hover or land like a helicopter, Bauernfeind said.

And it meets that need quite well, but it’s still an older platform, he said. “I think it’s time for us to start talking about the next generation of capabilities that can replace what the V-22 does.”

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Yamaguchi reported from Japan.

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