As Marines defended jungle hilltops near Khe Sanh in 1968, their lifeline to ammunition, medical treatment, and even mail was the Purple Foxes. Flying CH-46 helicopters, Marine airlift squadron HMM-364 — nicknamed the Purple Foxes — flew dozens of missions to the hilltop combat zone, fearless under intense fire as they dropped supplies or landed for desperate evacuations.
On one of those flights out, a grateful grunt who’d scrambled aboard told the crew, “We love you guys. You’re the only ones who give a shit.”
The pithy phrase has been the official motto of the Purple Foxes, now known as VMM-364, ever since.
Amber Sax says that slogan has been on her mind in the year since one of the squadron’s MV-22 Ospreys, flying as Swift 11, crashed, killing her husband, Capt. John Sax, and four other Marines.
“This squadron’s motto is ‘give a shit’,” Sax told Task & Purpose. “It’s a family, there’s a rich history for the squadron, and the mentality that we’ve had, since the [crash] is kind of like, these guys were our crew, we’re going to support each other, we’re going to stick together.”
Killed in the crash were pilots Sax and Capt. Nicholas P. Losapio and crew members Cpl. Nathan E. Carlson, Cpl. Seth D. Rasmuson, and Lance Cpl. Evan A. Strickland.
That determination to “give a shit,” Sax said, led her and the family members of the Swift 11 crew — including parents, spouses, and a pilot’s fiance — to push the Marine Corps for more details on the Swift 11 crash after the service released its final investigation in July.
In August, the families learned the Marines and officials with Bell Boeing, the Osprey’s maker, have been aware of the engine failure that caused the Swift 11 crash — known as a hard clutch engagement, or HCE — since 2010 and that a fix for the engines was scrubbed when it failed testing in 2020.
“An effort to redesign the IQA was initiated in 2017, with the goal of improving the design for reliability and performance,” the Marine Corps wrote in a document obtained by Task & Purpose. The input quill assembly (IQA) connects the engine to the drive system. “That redesign, however, did not incorporate a known solution to the HCE phenomenon because the exact cause of HCEs is still unknown. Moreover, that effort ultimately failed qualification in 2020.”
“What happened with the redesign plan after 2020?” Sax said. “Was it put on a back burner?”
Hard clutch engagement
In July, a Marine Corps command investigation cleared the Swift 11 crew of any blame in the June 2022 crash, instead finding that a dual hard clutch engagement, or HCE, in the transmission, had doomed the crew during a routine flight above a shooting range near El Centro, California.
“It is clear from the investigation that there was nothing the crew of Swift 11 could have done to anticipate or prevent this aviation mishap,” the report found. “They were engaged in routine flight operations and training, in accordance and compliance with all applicable regulations, when an unanticipated, unrecoverable, and catastrophic mechanical failure occurred.”
The report confirmed HCE failures are a known issue with Ospreys, with at least 15 verified HCE events in the aircraft’s history. But Sax and the families did not know until August, after they asked for more details, how long the military has been trying to fix the HCE issue, unsuccessfully.
When the families and loved ones of the Swift 11 crew learned that an HCE had caused the crash, they were upset but not surprised, Kelsie Hancock told Task & Purpose this week. Hancock, who is a Capt. in the Marine Corps Reserve, was engaged to Nick Losapio, Swift 11’s pilot and aircraft commander.
“Every single time Nick’s plane was broken and he would either come home early when he was supposed to fly or text me like ‘not flying today,’ it was always — and I’m not even over-exaggerating — it was always the gearbox,” said Hancock.
Hancock and Losapio met at Norwich University in Vermont, where they both were in the Naval ROTC program, both determined to be Marine officers. Nick graduated in 2013 and headed to flight school, while Hancock graduated in 2015 and became a communications officer. When Losapio was assigned to the Purple Foxes, Hancock joined him in San Diego. Their wedding was planned for August 2022.
At work, Losapio was “a phenomenal officer and pilot” whose “reputation precedes him,” according to a statement his commander gave the investigation board, and an instructor pilot for the Purple Foxes. Though Hancock said she never worried about Nick’s flying ability, she did wonder if the Osprey had underlying problems. “I remember telling him, ’That’s kind of concerning. When you’re in combat, we’re going to accept the risk, and we’re going to push. But when you’re home flying a couple times a week, and you have all these gearbox issues, that’s when I kind of start to get a little bit concerned about you.’”
In December 2017, an Air Force Osprey, flying as Pyro 76, suffered an HCE failure over Arizona. The plane tumbled out of the sky but was under enough control that the crew could make a hard landing.
It was after the Pyro 76 flight, the Marine Corps document says, that Bell Boeing and the Marine Corps began developing the IQA fix, but that fix did not pass testing in 2020 and was not incorporated into the fleet.
Swift 11 crashed in June 2022.
“It gave the impression that they weren’t taking the risks with hard clutch engagement seriously before 2022” when Swift 11 crashed, Sax said. “These guys loved flying the Osprey and John loved the Osprey. Our friends are still flying these. We need to protect our friends. If he were still here, he would still be flying it. I know that this wouldn’t deter him from flying the aircraft […] but we just want to make sure that this platform is as safe as possible.”
The 800-hour solution
In February 2023, six months after Swift 11 crashed, the military services that fly the Osprey and Bell Boeing issued instructions that the IQAs on all Ospreys should be replaced once the part reaches 800 hours of use, which the Marines call a “life limit.” The Marine Corps flies close to 300 Ospreys as one of the service’s primary troop and cargo haulers while the Air Force has just over 50 in its special operations fleet. The Navy flies a handful of the aircraft in specialized transportation roles.
The life limit, the Marine Corps said, is expected to reduce the likelihood of an HCE by 99% — a precise prediction that irked the families of Swift 11.
“That’s a bold freaking statement,” said Hancock. “Where did they come up with that number?”
But the new document says, before that 800-hour life limit was issued, three more previously undisclosed HCE failures occurred across the Osprey fleet in the months after the loss of Swift 11. None of those incidents were fatal or resulted in major crashes (the Marine Corps said in the investigation of Swift 11 that most HCE failures have occurred within three seconds of take-off). The Air Force also briefly grounded its Osprey fleet in September 2022.
In the investigation of Swift 11, released in July, Marine investigators said Ospreys in both the Marine Corps and the Air Force had suffered 15 HCE failures in roughly 680,000 flight hours across the entire military fleet.
Since the 800-hour life limit change, the document says, Ospreys have flown over 20,000 hours with no HCE issues.
Why, then, Sax and Hancock wonder, did it take their loved one and then three more HCE mishaps for the Osprey community to react?
A data problem
Amber and John Sax grew up in Northern California and met through friends after college. John, who had wanted to fly since he was a boy, graduated as a pilot from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. By the time he met Amber, he was already rated as a commercial pilot and soon became a commercial flight instructor. When he joined the Marines and began the long series of flight training schools, Amber studied for a masters degree in Analytics at Texas A&M. She now works as an analyst for a large credit union and said her comfort with crunching numbers and statistical models led her to look hard into the Swift 11 crash report and question their safety models.
“They say they didn’t have enough data,” Sax said. “But I have a really hard time with them saying ‘This one incident in January gave us the last bit of data we needed.’ That’s not how data works. You can’t have 15 incidents and say, that wasn’t enough. But then this one happened, and suddenly we figured it out.”
Osprey officials say the life limit rule was already in the works before the Swift 11 investigation was finished. In response to questions from Task & Purpose on the timing of the life limit rule, the Marine Corps provided a statement from Col. Brian Taylor, the V-22 Joint Program Manager: “The life limit was implemented before the Swift 11 investigation was complete, but the information from that investigation supports the life limit implementation.”
Taylor also said in the statement to Task & Purpose that Osprey engineers at Bell Boeing are again at work designing an “improved” IQA system, though he did not say how a new fix might vary from the one that failed to reach the fleet in 2020.
The Pentagon awarded Bell Boeing a $12.7 million contract for “improved proprotor gearbox input quill and clutch design” in January and a $53.6 million contract in March for a Gearbox Vibration Monitoring system aimed at “earlier detection” for “maintenance and potential mitigation of drive system failure.”
Both contracts note a December 2024 completion date, but Taylor said the timeline for delivery to the fleet “will be determined once it is fully qualified.”
But Taylor emphasized in the statement to Task & Purpose that Osprey officials believe the aircraft is safe.
“The safety of our aircrew is paramount to everything we do at the V-22 Joint Program office,” Taylor said. “Based on all data collected, we are confident that all V-22 aircraft are safe to operate throughout their entire mission envelope.”
A flight in Hawaii
Since the crash, Amber Sax has started the Capt. Sax Foundation, which funds scholarships for aspiring aviatiors.
Hancock remains in the Marine Reserves and in April, just weeks before the Swift 11 report was complete, deployed to Hawaii for training. The exercise, she learned, would include support from Osprey squadron VMM-268, the Red Dragons.
“They said something about doing an airlift and my eyes popped wide open,” she said.
On the day of the flight, the Red Dragon crew insisted she take the gunner’s position, sitting on the rear ramp. To take pictures of the Hawaiian landscape, she pulled out her phone, the lock screen for which is still a picture of Losapio sitting in nearly the same spot on an Osprey’s rear ramp.
The plane’s crew chief looked over her shoulder and recognized the uniform.
“Is your husband a Purple Fox?” the man yelled over the engines.
“It’s my fiance,” Hancock yelled back. “He was Capt. Nick Losapio from Swift 11.”
The man’s face dropped.
“He just hugged me,” Hancock remembered. “He said, ‘Thank you.’”
CORRECTION: 8/21/2023; An earlier version of this article inaccurately said that Marine Capt. John Sax attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. He attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona.
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