Reflection on Marine tragedy and the Osprey

I am deeply saddened this morning to wake up to news that two Marines have been killed and two more severely injured after an MV-22 Osprey crashed during a training operation in Morocco, sometime yesterday.

The Marines were based aboard New River Air Station in Jacksonville, North Carolina–the city I called home for three years before moving to Washington, D.C. It’s a small community. I could have waited behind one of these troops in a check-out line at Walmart, or stood across from one of them while fueling up my Corolla at GoGas. 

The Osprey had lifted off from the U.S.S. Iwo Jima, where I spent a weekend in December, chatting with troops about their upcoming training mission, the one they’re on right now. One of the Marines in the downed Osprey could have waved me onto an aircraft or showed me how to buckle my flight gear.

I’m used to this kind of wondering. Troops from New River Air Station and nearby Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville are routinely pushed out to the most kinetic combat zones in Afghanistan, and Defense Department releases KIA reports with their names sometimes at the rate of several a month.

But it always feels more tragic and wanton somehow when troops die because of an equipment error or a simple mistake. Details about the cause of the crash have not yet emerged, but since the incident took place during a peaceful collaborative training mission, that is my suspicion.

For the Osprey, a fanciful-looking aircraft that takes off like a helicopter, then tilts its rotors forward to fly like a plane, this crash is bad news–and bad timing. It comes only three days after the 12th anniversary of another MV-22 crash in Marana, Ariz., in which 19 troops were killed during an attempted landing after a training mission. 

Investigators found the crash was the result of Vortex Ring State, an Achilles Heel to which the hybrid aircraft is especially vulnerable and which can make it slam to earth, overpowering its operators, if altitude and speed is not right for landing.

Still fairly new, the Osprey has been called a dream machine, especially for the Marine Corps–it can go faster and farther than a helicopter and is great for re-supply and retrieval operations. I hardly remember ever talking to a Marine who did not love the Osprey and what it allowed the Corps to do.

But the dark shadow of controversy has hung over the bird from a number of early crashes, like the one in Marana, that proved costly in human lives. 

And with the prospect of budget sequestration approaching, production of costly new V-22s, at $70 million each, may very well be offered up to the axe if an investigation reveals mechanical failure.

For now, it’s too early to say what the outcome will be. But it’s an appropriate time to offer a prayer for the Marines and their families affected by this tragedy.