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Relatives of Marines Killed in Osprey Crashes Testify Before DOD Panel

Aired March 9, 2001 - 2:18 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Relatives of some of the Marines killed last year in two Osprey crashes are testifying before Defense Department panel. Let's check with CNN's Jeanne Meserve in Washington.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Lou, we want to take you right to that hearing. Right now, Stacey Nelson is testifying. Her husband was killed in the crash of an Osprey, so let's listen.

STACEY NELSON, WIFE OF WILLIAM BRIAN NELSON: He loved his job and it showed. He took great pride in his work and accomplishments. His expertise and enthusiasm won him The Instructor of the Year Award in 1998.

Brian felt that you could never know enough, and he continually sought out knowledge. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in aviation management from Southern Illinois University posthumously.

He was very competitive in all that he did, both professionally and personally. He loved sports of any kind, and he felt that a mountain bike was the only way to travel, besides a helicopter.

The following is an excerpt from the last letter he wrote. I received it the day he died. It's dated April 5th, and he writes: "Stacey, hey, baby, I'm getting ready to go to work. I have to fly late tonight. So I'm going in late. I received the picture of baby Nelson and it's so cute. It's really hard to believe that Brian Nelson has a beautiful wife, soon to be two beautiful children, and a house with a dog. It's all because of you, you've given me this wonderful life, and I thank you for it. I love you very much. Well, I'm going to work. Love, Brian."

Brian never saw the family he loved again. He isn't here each night, as I console his 4-year-old daughter, Isabel, when she wakes up crying for him in the night. He wasn't there when I gave birth to his second daughter Phoebe, and he isn't here as I try to muster the will to simply get through yet another day without him.

His parents mourn the loss of an only child. His death has left a void in their lives that will never be filled.

I can assure you the pain and loss that my family has suffered has been felt by each of the other 22 Marine families whose loved ones died last year in the Osprey crashes. Please see to it that all of the Osprey's problems are fixed no matter how much it cost or how long it takes. Please don't allow the problem to go forward until the aircraft is truly safe for our brave Marines. Thank you.

MESERVE: And that was Stacey Nelson, whose husband was killed in the crash of an Osprey. Bob Franken is covering these hearings for us. Bob, who else have we heard from today?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we've heard from some of the people who are pro and con the Osprey, people who say that you have to go forward with this. By the way, Stacey Nelson was the wife of Staff Sergeant William Brian Nelson, who was one of the crew chiefs on the aircraft that went down in April of last year: 19 were killed.

We'll be hearing from the co-pilot's wife and the pilot's wife in a few minutes, who will be talking about how furious they are that pilot error has been blamed on this.

Right now, I believe we're going to be hearing from Connie Gruber, the wise of the co-pilot, Major Brooks Gruber. Let's listen to her.

CONNIE GRUBER, WIDOW OF PILOT BROOKS GRUBER: ... for allowing me the opportunity to express my thoughts and concerns. I also am not here to condemn the Osprey. My husband gave his life for that aircraft. But unfortunately, it has very serious problems, problems that killed him and 22 other Marines in two separate accidents last year alone: Marines who were our friends.

In response to the senseless tragedies, I have confidence that the Marine Corps will do the right thing. Last month I personally met with General Jones, and he assured me that he is going to do the right thing. Because he is an honorable man, I believe that he will.

Just two weeks ago I stood before approximately 75 Marines who gathered at New River Air Station in support of my husband as he was awarded the meritorious service medal for his outstanding contributions to the V-22 program and his faithful service to this nation. Ironically, I come before you now to defend his name and reputation.

I speak today on behalf of Major Brooks Scott Gruber, a man who cannot speak for himself because his life was tragically taken at the age of 34 by a horribly violent accident, an accident that never should have happened: in fact, an accident that could have been avoided if only Bell and Boeing had presented the Marine Corps with a safe aircraft.

Because I am so keenly aware of my husband's intelligence and talents as a highly skilled pilot, carefully selected to be among the elite group of first Osprey pilots, I knew from the very beginning, as I have always known, that nothing my husband did contributed to that accident on April 8th in Marana, Arizona. It did not take another senseless tragedy in December or discovery of maintenance falsification to convince me of that. My support of my husband and the entire crew that was with him has been unwavering. They did their very best based on what we now know was extremely limited information about what that aircraft would and would not safely do.

If this program was rushed along to meet deadlines, advance personal agendas, curry political power or financial gain, it would be at the most unspeakable and unconscionable: At the very least it would be disturbing, distasteful and downright disgraceful. Ultimately it could even be criminal.

Clearly, these two accidents cannot be compared to other aviation accidents in history. They weren't just part of the standard routine of the hazards of introducing a new aircraft.

I encourage all of you to have the strength of character, the integrity to just say no when things aren't right. This is a very basic principle we teach our children. Yet as adults, even as leaders and role models, we fail and fall victim to misplaced priorities, exuberance and possibly outright deception: sins that are as old as the beginning of man.

Although we cannot change the sins of the past and bring our loved ones back, we can right this wrong for the future. I implore you to do the right thing today, to hear the evidence and see it for what it is -- not for what we may want it to be -- in order to save a multibillion-dollar program that has sadly spun out of control and taken 23 precious irreplaceable lives with it.

I ask that you say no to putting programs and products before people, say no to unnecessarily putting America's greatest patriots in harm's way, say no to blaming those brave souls by wrongly accusing them of crimes they did not commit and have no way of defending themselves against.

My husband and the rest of the crew slaved for the Osprey program, but they willingly poured all their energy, their heart and soul into it. To accuse my husband of not only causing his own death, but contributing to the deaths of 18 others is something the Gruber family cannot live with and should not have to.

I cannot begin to express to you how this wrongful accusation compounds our pain and prevents any progress toward healing.

My husband and the other crew members fully intended to safely land that aircraft that night. There was no communication indicating concern. There was no mayday. Something went horribly wrong with that aircraft, something they did not expect,something they where not properly trained to deal with, something they are in no way responsible for.

Therefore, it is right and it is just that the pilots be exonerated from human factor errors. I would like for this finding to be removed from my husband's record so he can be remembered, so all those onboard that night can be respectfully remembered and portrayed in V-22 history in the truthful and honorable way in which they deserve to be.

My daughter spent only the first six months of her life with her father. She is now too young to know and understand any of this. But one day she will know everything. And I want to be able to tell her what a true hero and patriot her father really was. I don't ever want her to feel a sense of responsibility or disappointment any time she asks anyone about her father, either what kind of a man he was or what kind of a pilot he was. I ask that you hold the parties, the ones that knew or should have known about the hidden dangers of this aircraft -- the makers of the aircraft -- responsible for the devastation of the lives of those of us who will forever be impacted by their poor judgments, overzealousness or carelessness.

General Jones told me in our meeting that not a day goes by that he doesn't think about these tragic accidents and the effects they have had on all of the families. He assured me that he would keep the families in mind regarding whatever decision he made about the Osprey.

I would request that the panel also take into consideration how the impact of any decision that you make will affect the 23 Marines and their families that have so dearly paid the ultimate price. We all have to face ourselves in the mirror. Our conscience -- conscience compels us to do the right thing and do what we can live with. Let us all pray that the right decisions will be made to recognize the valiant efforts and noble sacrifices of these faithful Marines who did their best for their country. Now, please, do your best for them and their families to provide us all with absolute certainty that they did not die in vain.

On behalf of my husband, Major Brooks Scott Gruber, I thank you for your time and attention.

MESERVE: Connie Gruber with force and conviction defending the actions of her husband, who was the pilot of an Osprey aircraft that went down last April. She said those who were responsible should be held to account. Amongst those she included, the makers of the tilt- rotor aircraft, during the hearings into the future of the V-22 Osprey being held in Arlington, Virginia.


MESERVE: Speaking now, Trisha Brow, wife of the pilot John Brow, who was piloting the Osprey aircraft that went down in April. Let's listen to her comments.

TRISHA BROW, WIDOW OF PILOT JOHN BROW: ... cancel a mission if things weren't right. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) told me he was the ultimate professional.

There was one slot in the V-22 program for a KC-130 pilot. When John put in for the program, I knew he was the best man for the job and even made suggestions for the resume. However, I didn't think John would get -- be selected because he was not political in nature.

To quote a three-star Marine general, "To be chosen for this program was more difficult than to be selected for general." Given the politically sensitive nature of the V-22, there weren't going to be just any operational testing. They wanted the best.

The fact that John was chosen is a testament to his ability and his standing in the Marine Corps.

The KC-130 community was disappointed to see John leave. John's answer to them was he thought he could make a difference in the Osprey program. John was the NATOPS officer for the V-22 operational test team, which means he was in charge of the flight manuals. This was not a new thing for John. When he was a KC-130 pilot, he even wrote refueling manuals for the helicopters they refueled. He was good at it.

John knew the Osprey manual as well as anyone. Before his death, he had submitted more than 400 corrections and validated and detailed technical information for two major changes to the flight manual. They gave him a medal for that.

Despite the immaturity of the manual, he was trying to correct it.

Vortex ring state (ph), the condition they say caused the death, was not addressed in the flight manual. If it were, John would have known it. From what I understand, the V-22 was not adequately tested for the phenomena. The 103 tests planned to look at various rates of descent were reduced to 49, and only 33 of these events were actually performed.

I find that unacceptable that the Marine Corps cited human factors as the cause of the crash when there was no mention of the phenomena in the flight manual.

The little information that was available apparently was labeled incorrectly. If John as the NATOPS officer did not know this could occur and how to fix the situation, how would a regular pilot know what to do?

While I thought of myself as an informed military wife, the process of discovering how my husband was killed has been painful. Unnamed Pentagon sources spoke to the papers daily, yet no one spoke to me. I waited 3 1/2 months for some answer. All along, I felt like the program was being pushed too hard and too fast.

I would like to raise a few questions that have bothered me. At Christmas of 1999, the operational test team came home early with less than 10 percent of the flying done and virtually none of the shipboard flying completed. While happy to have John home -- and I was surprised since everyone had been denied Christmas leave, because there was a big rush to complete the testing -- apparently they could not finish because of the manufacturing problems they had discovered. Could someone tell me why bolts on rotors of brand-new aircraft from the factory are found finger-tight on rotor systems and had to go into rework?

On February 20th, when John left for the shipboard test, the aircraft were not initially in an up status. John was to be the first to leave because of his expertise in refueling. The morning, he was at home on the phone with the tanker pilots rerouting the missions. John's aircraft did not have a working oxygen system so he could not fly above 10,000 feet. Developmental icing -- developmental testing on the icing system had not been fully tested, so John had to fly the south route to San Diego.

Originally, the Ospreys were supposed to depart at the same time. But since the aircraft were broken, they limped out to the West Coast separately. They even broke along the way to the operational testing. How can they say this aircraft is ready for the field?

John told me of other problems. While in Yuma and flying for his nation, they broke 11 windshields that supposedly cost $80,000 a piece. Why? Replacement pilots would show up not ready for issue.

Excuse me. Replacement parts would show up not ready for issue and have to be returned to the plant. Why? Slip rings on all the aircraft were replaced immediately after John's crash. Why?

The judge advocate general says that the V-22 has a propensity to roll. There was a case of uncommanded roll prior to John's death and another after his death. Why has this issue not been resolved?

On "60 Minutes" I watched in horror as they showed the crash of the previous 20 -- V-22. Those pilots walked away. In John's crash, the plane rolled over in a similar manner. Engineer friends told me the two situations differ that started the roll. It does not matter to me. They still -- they were still in a roll that caused their death.

People knew the aircraft could roll. Yet nobody yet did not fully study this area. Why?

In John's accident, he was second aircraft of the formation. The developmental testing formation (UNINTELLIGIBLE) flying was less than 12 hours. Turbulence wake and other factors have apparently not been fully evaluated. Why?

In closing, John believed in the Marine Corps. He had a great career in the KC-130, which he gave up because he believed he made a difference in the Osprey 130 program. John wanted an aircraft that best served the Marines. But he also believed that they had put all their eggs in one basket with the V-22.

My wish is you take a hard look at the program and make sure it's the right aircraft for the job. John -- John would have wanted what is best for the Marine Corps, but he would have wanted it to be right. As I said before, I have the feeling the program was pushed too hard and too fast. They wouldn't let John put in for Christmas leave in 1999 so they could start operational testing, yet it was clear the airplane wasn't ready. Program managers would not -- would not call a halt to the program even after the first crash.

There is so much political pressure to do this program it's like a runaway train. Can you please recommend a way to ensure that this time they take the time and do it right? The V-22 is very complex. John was faced with production problems, maintenance problems and poor documentation from the contractors. It may have been in tests for a long time by the calendar, but it hasn't been tested as thoroughly as other aircraft.

MESERVE: You're listening to testimony before a panel meeting in Arlington, Virginia, looking into the future of the V-22 osprey aircraft.

CNN's Bob Franken has been covering this hearing for us. Bob, some very emotional testimony from some widows, some women who lost their husbands in the crashes.

FRANKEN: In particular, the last two, who were the wives of the copilot and pilot of the plane that crashed in April of last year, because they're very upset because the crash is blamed on human error, meaning pilot error by their husbands. They believe that that in fact is a whitewash. They believe that in fact, as you heard, that it has to do with the manufacture of the plane. It has to do with what you just heard from Trish Brow, which was that there is political pressure -- runaway train, that the Marine Corps, as many people have accused, has really glossed over some of the maintenance problems, has hurried, which might have in fact resulted in the lack of knowledge, which contributed to the crash, they say.

On the other side, the Marine Corps says that the plane -- it's one that really combines helicopter and an airplane -- is the wave of the future. It's cutting-edge technology. It is just made for the Marine Corps, the commandant believes, because it can take troops and very quickly move them, very quickly from small areas, and then take them great distances at about 300 miles per hour behind enemy lines in such cases.

The Marine Corps has been fighting for this plane for over a decade, starting since 1991 when the defense secretary, who by the way was Dick Cheney, said that he wanted to get rid of it. Between the congressmen who were in the districts where it was manufactured and the Marine Corps, with its powerful lobbying ability, it was able to keep the program going. It's still under criticism.

This panel today is going to report to the defense secretary in a month what the future of the Osprey should be -- Jeanne.

MESERVE: And Bob, we should point out that some of these family members are involved in legal action?

FRANKEN: They are involved in litigation against the manufacturer. They were brought together, as a matter of fact, by their lawyers, who spoke earlier making the same point: Don't necessarily abandon the Osprey, they're saying, but test it properly.

MESERVE: And we have also been hearing today in that hearing from some supporters of the Osprey aircraft. Here's what one of them had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) FRANK GAFFNEY, CENTER FOR SECURITY POLICY: Were we to cancel it outright, I am convinced that what we will do is not only set back the effort to advance our military, and its performance of missions that will probably become more challenging in the decades ahead, we will wind up paying in a currency that we hold particularly dear. And that's the lives of Marines and other service personnel as well.


MESERVE: And there also was testimony today from John Douglass. He is president and CEO of Aerospace Industries Association. Here's what he had to say.


JOHN DOUGLASS, PRESIDENT & CEO, AEROSPACE INDUSTRIES ASSOCIATION: ... spent tens of billions of dollars on it. And during this same time that we've done this, as I've said before, our allies have reached parity with us in most other areas.

So my second point is essentially that I think it would be a huge mistake for us to abandon this technology and the benefits that it will bring to us in our commercial sector just when we're on the verge of reaping those benefits.


MESERVE: And once again, as Bob Franken mentioned, this panel expected to make its recommendation on the future of the Osprey in the month of April. Our thanks to Bob Franken.



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