Twelve years ago, Connie Gruber received news that every wife of an armed serviceman dreads.
“I was at home with the baby and my mom and it was around 3 a.m., so we were all asleep. And that’s when the nightmare began, with the knock on the door,” Gruber remembers.
The nightmare deepened a few months later when a Marine Corps press release named her late husband and his pilot as responsible for the V-22 Osprey crash that took their lives and killed 17 others.
For more than a decade she has fought to clear her husband, Maj. Brooks Gruber, of the charges. She argues adamantly that pilot error was not the reason for the crash but the Marines’ determination to get the V-22 aircraft ready for deployment above all else.
Her case sheds light on the plane’s history of mechanical flaws, responsible for some of the 38 lives lost in crashes, and on the military’s stubborn resistance to reevaluating its own findings despite mounting skepticism and a congressman’s investigation.
Major Gruber was a helicopter pilot before he started training to fly the V-22 Osprey in 1997.
“Brooks loved that plane,” Connie Gruber says. “The first time he flew it he came home and was so excited, like a kid. He said it smelled like a new car and felt like a rocket.”
The V-22 was touted for its ability to span distances fast like a plane and take off and land like a helicopter. When it began production in 1981 it was the answer to rescue missions and transportation of troops. But eight years later Dick Cheney, then running the Pentagon, tried to kill the program completely, telling a Senate committee that it was unnecessary and costly. Congress overruled him, though, and partial production of the aircraft started with a budget worth $40 billion.
The Osprey had its first fatal crash in 1991. Two died, and the accident was attributed to faulty wiring. The next year seven more people were killed when a V-22’s engine caught on fire.
Gruber, 34, stationed in Marana, Ariz., in 2000, found the aircraft fraught with maintenance and technology issues—such as bolts coming lose and hydraulic wires being crossed, which often grounded planes before missions.
April 8 was the day the entire Osprey fleet at Marana was scheduled to be in the air for the first time. Connie Gruber remembers talking briefly to her husband before the mission. It was the last time she would hear his voice.
“He was so excited about this big mission, and they were going to have all the planes up … but as I hung up the phone I remember thinking, how are they going to have all these aircraft up at one time when they are all in a constant state of repair?” she says.
The fleet was to fly at night with a full passenger load for a mock hostage situation. But when Brooks Gruber, the co-pilot, and the pilot, Lt. Col. John Brow, set up for landing, they descended too quickly, which gave the aircraft little uplift and caused it to go into what is known as a Vortex Ring State. That stalled one of the Osprey’s two helicopter rotors, making the aircraft flip upside down and plummet to the ground.
When Connie Gruber received the accident report in the summer, detailing the factors that led to the crash, pilot error wasn’t cited as a cause. In fact, the Marine Corps report expressly states, “We found nothing that we would characterize as negligence, deliberate pilot error or maintenance/ material failure.” But a Marines statement later released to the press contradicted the accident report, reading “Unfortunately, the pilots’ drive to accomplish that mission appears to have been the fatal factor.”
“We had two tragedies at that moment,” Gruber recalls. “It wasn’t just us trying to come to terms with Brooks’s death, it was this accident report. It was like my husband dying two times—first in the flesh and second in the press with his name.”
Appalled by the blame-shifting, Connie and Brow’s widow, Trish, wrote to Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who serves on the Armed Services Committee. He took up the wives’ cause and agreed that the pilots were not at fault.
“The Marine Corps didn’t understand” Vortex Ring State, he says. “Bell-Boeing—the aircraft manufacturers—didn’t understand it, and these Marine pilots didn’t know how to react.”
It took another crash in December 2000, which killed four due to a hydraulic and software error, before the Marine Corps grounded the Osprey fleet. For 18 months the aircraft was redesigned and retro-fitted with a VRS warning signal.
A 2001 Government Accountability Office report found that the Osprey testing process before the tragedy in Marana had been sped up. According to the report, “development testing was deleted, deferred or simulated in order to meet cost and schedule goals.” Additionally, it found the aircraft was “far less reliable than what is required.”
In that same year a devastating audio recording surfaced of the commanding officer of the Osprey squadron. He was heard telling his men to forge maintenance records and manipulate V-22 data so full production of the fleet would get the green light.
The leak prompted a military investigation that ended with the lieutenant losing his position. He and one other officer received only a letter of reprimand.
“To me it’s very simple,” Gruber says. “It was a premature mission in an immature aircraft. Brooks flew an airplane that was ultimately downed, grounded for nearly two years, so that adequate testing and life-saving redesign could make it safe for the pilots who flew after him.”
However, the Osprey continues today with a less-than-perfect record. A 2010 crash in Afghanistan killed four people and was initially attributed to engine failure. Later, a senior military officer changed the cause of the crash to pilot error.
The most recent Osprey crash occurred April 11 during an annual exercise in Morocco, killing two Marines. The cause has not yet been determined.
Critics say such crashes should not be happening, especially since the V-22 has been around for decades.
“This plane wasn’t under fire. It wasn’t in a combat situation. If we are just going from point A to point B we shouldn’t expect these planes to crash,” says Ben Freeman, national-security investigator for the Program on Government Oversight.
He says federal officials support the Osprey program despite its shortcomings for a simple reason: “It has the military equivalent of sex appeal.”
“It’s truly pretty marvelous technology, to go from being a helicopter to a plane. So that alone has a sort of star power,” he says. “I think there is a military need for a program like the Osprey’s, but the Osprey isn’t fulfilling that need.”
The Marine Corps remains adamant that the V-22 is safe, pointing to the list it compiled of Class A Mishaps—incidents involving fatalities or more than $2 million in damage—which currently ranks the Osprey the third-safest rotorcraft.
“It is highly capable, reliable, and among the safest aircraft in the Marine Corps’ inventory,” Marine Capt. Richard Ulsh says.
Some critics challenge the list because the numbers are gathered internally and do not include accidents that occur on the ground.
Richard Whittle, author of The Dream Machine, a comprehensive book on the V-22’s history, says people have a false perception of the current Osprey.
“There’s the Osprey of the dark ages,” plagued by crashes, “and there’s the Osprey of today,” which is unmatched in its ability, he says.
Representative Jones continues to push for a military statement exonerating Gruber and Brow. He’s collected statements from the three investigators who compiled the original 2000 accident report, who all say the pilots weren’t at fault, and has personally met with the last four Marine Corps commandants.
The Marines, for their part, consider the matter closed. “The Marine Corps is unaware of any new evidence that warrants questioning the findings from the original mishap investigation,” says Ulsh.
The two widows aren’t giving up.
“Most people don’t Google their family and find a negative connotation,” Trish Brow says. “My husband was doing his job, he found a new aerodynamic situation with the aircraft, and he lost his life … and now he’s blamed for it.”