Has the Marine Corps manipulated MV-22 safety records?

by Craig Hooper on December 25, 2009

I’m looking at the Final Environmental Impact Statement (Volume II)  for the West Coast Basing of the MV-22.  It tells me, among other things, that, according to the Navy Safety Center’s Aviation Hazard Data Base, the V-22 has not suffered a single Class A mishap since FY 2001 (page 6-239). (the entire set of MV-22 EIS documents can be found here.)

A Class A mishap–if I recall correctly–means that there is either $1,000,000 property damage and/or the aircraft is destroyed (Or that the accident inflicts a fatality or permanent total disability).  These thresholds were the ones used for the MV-22 EIS cited above.

But Ronald O’Rourke’s September 16, 2009 Congressional Research Service report, “V-22 Osprey Tilt-Rotor Aircraft: Background and Issues for Congress” tells me, on page 46, this:

The program continues to experience technical and operational challenges, and
mishaps. For example, an inadvertent takeoff in March 2006 caused wing and engine damage in excess of $1 million…An engine fire on December 7, 2006, caused more than $1 million to repair…”

What’s up?  Seems like we’re short a few Class A mishaps, here.  Or am I missing some nuance in the EIS verbiage?  Who can I believe here? Truth is truth, but..I mean, look….If a V-22 incident costs under a million dollars to repair, then fine, ok, the mishap should be classified as a Class B mishap or less.

The incentives for the Marine Corps to down-grade the severity of Osprey mishap data are obvious.

The program had (and still has) a lot to loose if the rate of MV-22 Class A mishaps increases.  Why?  Because the Marine Corps regularly uses the low rate of reported MV-22 Class A mishaps to sell the program to policymakers  (If you read the EIS, the Marines compare Osprey Class A mishap rates to those of legacy platforms–and, obviously, the Osprey comes out lookin’ good). Such a strategy may be leading to data manipulation by the U.S. Marine Corps.  

News stories coming from, say, the December 2006 Osprey incident (cited in the CRS quote above), suggest there might have been some pressure out there to minimize the severity of Osprey mishaps (the day after the previous story went to press, it became a tentative “Class B” ).

And here’s media coverage of Marine Corps spokesman telling me that the March 2006 incident was a Class A mishap:

The base at New River is overseen by the 2nd Marine Air Wing at Cherry Point, NC. Maj. Shawn Haney, a spokeswoman at Cherry Point, said the incident has been labeled a class A mishap, which is the most serious and expensive kind. By definition, any mishap costing more than $1 million is in this category.

But, in the Navy Safety Center data used for the MV-22 EIS, there’s no record of a Class A mishap occurring, apparently. What happened here?  Is somebody tinkering with the data?  Who can I believe?

It gets worse.

Take this simple Osprey fire and emergency landing from November 2007.  Read subsequent coverage of the investigation–very thorough work fr

om the usually V-22 friendly website defensetech.org, here and here (the picture above was taken from an official report on the incident–parts of which defensetech.org posted here). This, according the the JAGMAN report, should have been a Class A mishap–it was a hydraulic fluid incident, where:

The fluid drained onto the infrared sup­pres­sor sec­tion of the nacelle — where hot exhaust from the engine is cooled to cut down on the plane’s heat sig­na­ture — spark ing the mid-​​air fire which caused more than $16 mil­lion in dam­age to the air­craft, accord­ing to the Judge Advocate General Manual Investigation report obtained by Military​.com.

Sixteen million dollars of damage, eh? So…why was this crash not reported as a Class A mishap? What level of mishap is it classified as today? A Class B? What? How does one go from $16 million to less than a million?

This is safety we’re talking about. 

I get the game, and I’m fine with folks trying to work the system a bit. Within reason. But if somebody in the Navy went through a strenuous effort (accounting-wise or whatever) to work the dollar-figures down to under a million bucks, then…you know…that’s being untruthful. I get the game–depreciation and all that, yeah–but…

…given that we taxpayers are paying about two million dollars per Rolls Royce engine (In December we bought 62 engines for the MV-22 for $128 million), I find it pretty hard to believe the Marine Corps can walk away from an engine fire for less than a million in damages (Here’s a little example of how the Safety Center values engines post-mishap, combined with a list of engine replacement costs–a V-22 AE1107c replacement is $2,066,00). 

Perhaps, in time, we can talk about whether or not we should–given the increasing complexity and price of our military equipment–and adjust the dollar value of a Class A mishap a little higher to reflect severity a bit better (Ahh, they just did!  As of October 1, 2009, the Class A mishap threshold is $2 million dollars…Obviously this report was completed before the threshold shift–take a look at the data in the Feb 2009 draft EIS Volume II–no change.  Doesn’t look like the threshold change is retroactive, either.). 

But…still, making a $16 million dollar incident vanish from safety records is a bit more than a simple bureaucratic masterpiece. To me, it carries a whiff of fraud.

And, bottom line,  it’s safety we’re talking about here.  Good, honest safety records make for good, honest policy decisions–decisions that can save the lives of Americans.

The data points are waaay too fishy. And it does nothing to build confidence that the MV-22 program is where it should be. So, for next year, I hope Marine Corps Aviation works a whole lot harder to be accountable. Personally, after sorting through this mess of contradictory data, I’m loosing confidence in a program that should be celebrating–and far, far beyond this kind of high-schoolish data-fudging.

I want to know. If this is a screw-up (deliberate or otherwise), just who is accountable for it?

And, for that matter, when will the executive-level folks responsible for this program be held accountable?  Is it time to put Marine Air under new management?

The whole world wonders.

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