• U.S.

A Crash and a Collusion?

5 minute read
Mark Thompson/Washington

Like a motorist picking up his car from the repair shop, the two Marine pilots expected their Bell AH-1 Cobra to be running smoothly when they went to retrieve it. After all, the two-man gunship had been in the Fort Worth, Texas, factory nearly a year for a $1.8 million overhaul. But Major Michael Browne and 1st Lieut. Robert Straw found enough problems with the chopper to delay their departure a day. Then, 20 minutes after they took off in the late afternoon of May 23, 1997, they were killed when their aircraft plunged into a field 15 miles southeast of Dallas.

Four days later–the day after Memorial Day–their North Carolina unit’s Marines gathered in their chapel at New River air station. “Semper Fidelis,” they intoned solemnly before 700 mourners. “We will never forget you.” But despite the service’s long and treasured tradition of mutual trust and fierce loyalty, forgetting their men is precisely what the Marines seem to have done in this case.

Browne and Straw, with 2,500 hrs. of flawless flying between them, spent the final seconds of their life steering their Cobra away from a school as its twin engines sputtered, slowing its rotor blades nearly to a halt. Upon impact, the aircraft exploded into a 1,500[degree]F fireball, fed by 300 gal. of jet fuel. The conflagration destroyed the helicopter, making it impossible to determine the cause of the crash.

But the Marine investigation into the accident, obtained by TIME, points to an apparent culprit. According to a lengthy list of snafus detailed in the official probe, the Marines accuse Bell of allowing the helicopter to take off even though the Pentagon had ordered it grounded because of five urgent safety problems. Two of the five requested fixes were designed to prevent a loss of engine power, which investigators for the families believe caused the crash. The report concluded that the Cobra should never have taken off until these and other repairs had been made. Bell has shed little light on the tragedy. After conferring with Bell lawyers, eight of the nine employees questioned about their work on the helicopter changed their statements to shift responsibility away from their company. (Bell, citing a suit filed by the pilots’ families, declined to comment on the case.)

Yet despite Bell’s actions, the Marines have done nothing–not even scolded the company. A Pentagon official, trying to explain the Marines’ passive treatment of Bell, says the company exerts a strong “gravitational pull” on the service. Bell reaps 95% of the Marines’ spending on helicopters each year, or more than $1 billion. More critically, some Pentagon officials suggest that the Marines don’t want the crash to jeopardize Bell’s $36 billion V-22 program. That Marine “tilt-rotor” aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter and cruises like a turboprop airplane, is on the verge of lifting off after more than a decade of troubled development.

Last week the first of 458 V-22 Ospreys finally landed in the Pentagon’s front yard, greeted by Pentagon brass and the Marine Band. But the program has had powerful critics from the start. The Bush Administration tried to kill it, saying its $79 million-a-copy price tag was too steep. The Army has refused to buy the Osprey, citing its cost. Pentagon officials acknowledge that the Cobra’s crash–and Bell’s role in it–could complicate the Marines’ efforts to keep buying V-22s because of doubts it might raise about Bell. “If the Marines come down hard on Bell, the whole program could be called into question,” says Lawrence Korb, who oversaw Pentagon logistics and personnel during the Reagan Administration.

The families of the dead aviators agree. “There’s a coziness and collusion between the Marines and Bell because of the Marines’ reliance on Bell,” says William Straw, father of the 29-year-old Marine pilot killed in the Texas crash. The Straw family knows something about military aviation. William, a 1967 graduate of the Air Force Academy and a former test pilot, won the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting a C-130 cargo plane through bad weather and enemy fire to resupply a beleaguered U.S. outpost in Vietnam. Both of Robert’s grandfathers won that decoration in World War II. James Browne, whose son Michael, 33, perished in the Cobra’s backseat, also believes the Marines’ dependence on Bell has thwarted justice. “I am very disappointed in how the Marines have treated my family.”

The Marines see their behavior differently. “The Marine Corps shares your grief and frustration,” General T.R. Dake, the assistant commandant, wrote the Browne family last month. Yet the service has taken no action against Bell, the Marines argue, because the corps can’t pinpoint the cause of the crash and therefore the responsibility for it cannot be established.

Bell and the Army, which inspects Bell’s work at the plant, have blamed each other for the problems exposed in the Marine probe. “Ultimately it’s [the Army’s] decision to do them or not,” a Bell official said of the safety fixes. “This is not our aircraft.” But the Marine inquiry said Bell was “contractually responsible” for providing the crew with a safe aircraft. The Army major in charge of monitoring Bell’s work concurred. “Bell is the one responsible for wrench turning,” he told Marine investigators, “and for the inspection of all that.”

Now the Marines are strangely revising their own findings. Last week an officer speaking on behalf of the corps told TIME that it believes pilot error caused the crash because the crew failed to glide the chopper safely to the ground with its unpowered but spinning rotor blades. That is a startling assertion, given that the official investigation contained no hint that the crew members’ actions contributed to their death. It seems the Marine credo–“The risk of death has always been preferable to letting a fellow Marine down”–may have been set aside in this case.

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