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Marine Corps families say Osprey is ‘unsafe and unairworthy’ in lawsuit over deadly 2022 crash

The families of four Marines who died in a 2022 MV-22 Osprey crash say Boeing, Bell Textron and engine-maker Rolls Royce lied about the plane's safety.
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Two MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Marine Corps photo by 1st Lt. Mark Andries. MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit operates in support of a theater amphibious combat rehearsal at Camp Titin, Jordan, June 8, 2021. (First Lt. Mark Andries/U.S. Marine Corps).

The families of four Marines who died when their MV-22 Osprey seized up and crashed on a routine training flight say the companies that built the troubled plane made “intentionally” or “recklessly false statements” about its safety, and put the Marines into an “unsafe and unairworthy aircraft.”

In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in San Diego, the families of four Marines killed on Swift 11 — an Osprey flight that crashed in 2022 after suffering catastrophic engine failure during routine training in California — say aerospace giants Boeing, Bell Textron and Rolls Royce “supplied false information about the safety of the aircraft” to government and military officials.

Boeing and Bell Textron are the two lead contractors that built the Osprey. Rolls Royce builds the Osprey’s engines. A Marine Corps investigation of the crash found that the $90 million aircraft suffered a “hard clutch engagement,” or HCE failure within its transmission, which caused its engines to fail, a catastrophic failure which gave the crew no chance to survive.

“There were no prior indications of an impending dual HCE event, no steps that [Swift 11’s pilots] could have taken to prevent its occurrence, and no means of recovery once the compound emergency commenced,” investigators said. The report also cleared maintenance troops at Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 364 of any responsibility, deciding that no mechanical fix would have prevented the HCE.

In the lawsuit, the families of the Swift 11 crash say responsibility for the mysterious failure lies with the Osprey’s manufacturers, who they say have so far failed to fix or even explain the transmission failures that have plagued the Osprey fleet.

One of the suit’s plaintiffs, Amber Sax, was married to pilot Capt. John Sax.

“We’ve given ample time to request additional answers as to ‘how’ something like this could happen,” Sax said in a statement. “We seek accountability, answers, and change. Our goal isn’t to see this platform removed; it’s to know that someday we will be able to say, ‘their lives enabled others to live,’ knowing what happened to them won’t ever be repeated. Finding the root cause of these mechanical failures and pressing for full transparency for our military, service members, and their families is only part of our advocacy.”

The lawsuit cites failures in a long list of related components in the Ospreys including its engines and transmission parts, and two power control computers known as the FADEC and ICDS.

“By virtue of [Boeing, Bell and Rolls Royce’s] position of superior knowledge about the V-22 Osprey aircraft, engines, FADECs, transmission, clutch, ICDS, and other systems and their component parts, the government justifiably relied upon their false statements, information, and/or misrepresentations,” the 45-page lawsuit alleges.

Officials with Boeing and Rolls Royce did not respond to emails sent by Task & Purpose seeking comment on the lawsuit. The Marine Corps, which is not named in the suit, does not generally comment on ongoing investigations.

Tim Loranger, the lead attorney for the families, told Task & Purpose that the lawsuit was filed as much to force the military and the three contractors to disclose information on the Osprey as for monetary damages.

“We’re making allegations that Boeing, Rolls Royce and Bell, didn’t fully disclose some aspect of what they knew,” Loranger said. “We’re not saying we specifically have some ‘smoking gun’ document. We’re asking, how is it that this aircraft, after all these years, has as many malfunctions as it does and it has not been resolved.”

The lawsuit claims that the companies delivered Osprey components they knew did “not meet the government’s
specifications for operation, durability, endurance, or reliability.”

“What didn’t they disclose? That’s what we’re looking for,” Loranger said. “Along with the most important part, what is wrong with this aircraft? There’s clearly a problem, the military acknowledges there is a problem they are still trying to resolve.”

Though the root of the HCE failure remains a mystery, the Osprey’s engines and transmission have been behind over a dozen Osprey incidents in the last decade, many of them fatal. However, outside of the results of official investigations into the crashes, the Swift 11 families say they have not been given access to the engineering data or designs behind the Osprey’s known failures.

“The military is so self-protective, they automatically make people who put their lives on the line, they make people suspicious,” said Loranger. “‘Why aren’t you telling us what information you have? Why arent you sharing this?’ We work with some amazing experts who are eager to examine the evidence. But without a lawsuit, the military certainly is not going to invite us in to take a look.”

The Swift 11 crash was one of the deadliest of those incidents. The San Diego-based Marine MV-22 crashed on June 8, 2022, killing pilots Sax, 33, and Capt. Nicholas P. Losapio, 31; and three crew members, Cpl. Nathan E. Carlson, 21, Cpl. Seth D. Rasmuson, 21, and Lance Cpl. Evan A. Strickland, 19.

A command investigation released by the Marine Corps found that five Marines killed in June 2022 Osprey crash were not at fault in the accident. Top, Capt. John J. Sax, Capt. Nicholas P. Losapio; Bottom: Cpl. Nathan E. Carlson, Cpl. Seth D. Rasmuson, and Lance Cpl. Evan A. Strickland.

The lawsuit was filed by family members of four of the five Marines — Sax, Rasmuson’s widow Avery Rasmuson, Carlson’s widow Emily Baxter, and Strickland’s parents, Wayland and Michelle Strickland.

Recurring issues across the Osprey fleet

Hard clutch engagements — which can cause an Osprey engine to seize and shred itself during flight — have plagued the Osprey fleet. The Marines own close to 340 Ospreys, the Air Force about 50 and the Navy 27.

Two Ospreys — one Marine, one Air Force — have been involved in two fatal crashes since the Swift 11 mishap, though the causes of both remain under investigation. On Nov. 29, 2023, an Air Force CV-22, flying as Gundam 22, crashed off the coast of Japan, killing eight crew members. An Osprey crash in Australia in the summer of 2023 killed three crewmembers, though close to 20 Marines on board the plane survived.

Investigations into both crashes remain ongoing, but Air Force officials have confirmed details around the Japan crash that are eerily similar to Swift 11. The plane crashed suddenly due to a “material” failure on the plane, Air Force officials said last winter, ruling out crew error.

All three services grounded their Ospreys in January, as did Japan’s Air Force. The Naval Air System Command announced the end of that three-month stand down in early March and all three services are now back flying the aircraft.

Prior to the Swift 11 crash Ospreys had reported 15 HCE failures in 680,000 flight hours across both services, 10 of which occurred within 3 seconds of take-off. Failures in flight, like the one that struck the Pendleton Osprey in June 2002, were rarer but nearly always catastrophic.

The final Swift 11 report also revealed that Osprey engineers with the military, Boeing and Bell Textron have sought a fix for HDC failures since at least 2017, but have yet to solve the issue with new parts, instead changing maintenance procedures and repair schedules for the plane.

A crash with no warning

In a 400-page report released Friday, July 21, Marine investigators confirmed that Swift 11 suffered a dual hard clutch engagement through no fault of the aircrew or the maintenance troops responsible for the CV-22. The report walks through every detail of the flight, from the age of the Osprey’s engines to how many hours of sleep the crew got the night before. The crash occurred as Swift 11 and a sister ship, Swift 12, conducted routine gunnery training, the pilots guiding the two Ospreys through a series of passes over a target on the ground as the crew chiefs in back took turns firing the plane’s .50 caliber M240 Ramp Mounted Weapon System, or RMWS gun.

The only hint of a problem that Swift 11 passed along to Swift 12 was its decision to “detach” from the two-ship formation just before one of the gun runs. Swift 11 called Swift 12 to say it had a “hot box” — short hand for a high temperature reading on a transmission — and was going to climb up from the gun orbits at 200 feet to cooler air at 500 feet. Far from an emergency, climbing to cool off a “hot box” was a routine event in an Osprey, the report said, and had already happened once on the flight. Swift 12 continued its gun pass.

At 7 seconds past 12:14 in the afternoon, investigators found, a radar system miles away known as the El Centro Airport Surveillance Radar recorded Swift 11 climbing through 500 feet at 95 knots. On the radar’s next sweep, the blip was gone.

No one on board Swift 12 saw Swift 11 fall or crash, and the crew made no distress call. Swift 12’s crew, according to the report, only realized something was wrong when one of the gunners spotted a column of smoke coming from a fire on the ground near their target — far from a cause for panic, given the live rounds raining down on it.

But when the Marines on Swift 12 called to Swift 11 and got no response, they feared the worst. “Well, this isn’t a good feeling at all,” said the crew’s most junior Marine on the intercom. Looping back toward the smoke column, the crew recognized in the fire the distinctive oversized propellers of an Osprey.

The crew’s pilot said out loud what all four Marines knew: “That’s them.”

Swift 12’s crew later estimated that the time between Swift 11’s last “detaching” radio call to the moment the crew chief spotted the already-500-foot plume of smoke was perhaps 30 seconds.

“The flight back was super quiet,” Swift 12’s junior crew chief wrote for the investigation. “I was very quiet because I was really close with those crew chiefs. The pilots were doing their jobs, talking to [air traffic control] to get us back safely. I remember thinking, ‘These guys are acting way too fine right now.’ But in hindsight, they were just being good pilots and professionals, making sure we got home safe.”

UPDATE: 5/23/2024; This article has been updated with comment from Amber Sax, an attorney for the Swift 11 families, background information on other Osprey mishaps and details of the investigation of the Swift 11 crash.

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