TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – All five airmen aboard an Air Force CV-22 Osprey were hospitalized after the tilt-rotor aircraft with a checkered safety record crashed in the Florida Panhandle, but none of the injuries were life-threatening, their commanding officer said Thursday.
The Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter but has wings for level flight, went down Wednesday shortly before sunset on a gunnery range on Eglin Air Force Base's sprawling military reservation north of Navarre, said Col. Jim Slife, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at nearby Hurlburt Field.
"This particular mission was a gunnery training mission, and so it was a two aircraft formation out performing gunnery," Slife said during a news conference at Hurlburt. "When the lead aircraft turned around in the gun pattern, they did not see their wingman behind them so they started a brief search and found the aircraft had crashed right there on the range."
The aircraft was found upside down and had significant damage, Slife said.
"There was some fire," he said. "It did not burn all the way to the ground."
The wing was standing down to focus on the injured crew members and their families, Slife said, but he added that the Air Force Special Operations Command headquartered at Hurlburt had no intention of grounding its remaining fleet of 24 Ospreys.
It may be some time before the cause of the crash becomes public. A safety panel has already has begun an investigation but its findings will not be released. A separate accident investigation board also will be convened and parts of its findings will be public, Slife said.
Maj. Brian Luce, one of the pilots, and Tech. Sgt. Christopher Dawson, a flight engineer, were listed in stable condition at Eglin's hospital.
Capt. Brett Cassidy, the second pilot, and Tech. Sgt. Edilberto Malave, a flight engineer, also were in stable condition at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. Staff Sgt. Sean McMahon, a flight engineer, was in guarded condition at Sacred Heart.
The Eglin reservation covers 724 square miles, approximately two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, about 100 miles west of Tallahassee. It is mostly forest but also includes swamps, streams, clearings and remote airfields.
The Air Force crash occurred just two months after a Marine Corps version of the aircraft, an MV-22 Osprey, went down during a training exercise in Morocco. Two Marines were killed and two others severely injured in that crash.
Earlier this month, the military put plans on hold for briefly deploying Marine Ospreys to a city in Japan after local officials objected due to the aircraft's safety record.
An Air Force version was the first Osprey to crash in Afghanistan in April 2010, killing three service members and a civilian contractor. Ospreys went into service with the Marines and Air Force in 2006. The Marines began using them in Iraq the following year.
The Osprey initially was developed for the Marines to replace transport helicopters. It can carry 24 troops and fly twice as fast as comparable assault helicopters while retaining the ability to hover. Twin engines with large, 38-foot diameter propellers mounted on the wing tips tilt up for taking off and landing. Each aircraft is priced at about $70 million.
The Air Force version is equipped with a missile defense system, terrain-following radar, a forward-looking infrared sensor and other electronic gear that enable it to avoid detection and defend itself on special operations missions over enemy territory.
The Osprey was nearly canceled several times during its lengthy development due to cost overruns and safety questions.
Nineteen Marines were killed in 2000 when an Osprey crashed during a training exercise in Arizona. Another MV-22 crashed in North Carolina, killing four Marines, in December of that year.
When former Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary, he tried to kill the program in 1989, saying the aircraft wasn't needed, but the Marines persuaded Congress to keep it going.
Information from: Northwest Florida Daily News, http://www.nwfdailynews.com