From The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey by Richard Whittle. Copyright 2010 by James Richard Whittle. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, New York. The author will be answering questions here during the week of January 24 to 28.
Five seconds into the flight, by the time they were 10 feet in the air, test pilot Grady Wilson knew he had a tiger by the tail. A minute and a half later, he was sure he and his copilot were about to meet their maker.
The maiden flight of the fifth Osprey prototype, Aircraft 5, began just after 6 p.m. on June 11, 1991, at Greater Wilmington Airport in Delaware, where Boeing Helicopter had its flight test center. Wilson, 50 at the time, had gone to work for Boeing just seven months earlier, but test pilots didn’t come with much more experience. A crusty good oleboy from Mississippi, Wilson had learned his trade flying helicopters and airplanes in the Army for 23 years, 14 of them as a test pilot. He spent five of those at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, were he flew the XV-15. Wilson’s copilot in Aircraft 5 that day was Lynn Freisner, the 54-year-old flight test director at Boeing Helicopter.
They lifted off after an annoying couple of hours in the cockpit spent sweating up their flight suits as engineers fixed finicky monitoring instruments in the back cabin. The Osprey prototypes had lousy air-conditioning, and though it was only 70 degrees outside, sunshine streaming through the windshield was baking the pilots. The cockpit’s four computerized Multi-Function Displays—cathode-ray tubes designed to take the place of the dials and gauges on older aircraft—were generating so much heat they were starting to fail. By the time the engineers climbed out, Wilson could think of several reasons he and Freisner should just go back to the hangar. Instead, they taxied out to an asphalt test pad to start flying.
Aircraft 5, painted in Marine Corps camouflage, had never flown before. This was just to be a brief hover, no more than 30 minutes at no more than 30 feet, a shakedown to check out some systems and check off a box so Boeing could get a step closer to turning Aircraft 5 over to the government and getting paid for it. Boeing and Bell had started the fifth prototype in 1988, but stopped for several months in 1989 after [then defense secretary Richard] Cheney announced he was canceling the Osprey. The companies resumed work on Aircraft 5 later that year, after Congress voted more money, but finishing touches were still being put on the Osprey prototype in a hangar at Wilmington just days before Wilson and Freisner climbed aboard.
Workers at Wilmington showed signs of being rushed. Government inspectors had been complaining for months about sloppiness at the facility. The inspectors kept finding FOD—foreign object debris—in and around the Osprey prototypes there. FOD, which rhymes with “sod,” is anything that might damage an aircraft—a bit of wire, a coin, a mislaid tool, metal shavings, you name it. FOD sucked into a turbine engine can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage, even a crash. That’s why runways at military bases and flight decks of aircraft carriers are regularly walked by lines of troops or sailors looking for FOD. Over the previous six months, government inspectors had found electric plugs, scissors, rags, a vacuum tool attachment, a six-inch drill bit, a flashlight, nuts, washers, all kinds of FOD in the Osprey prototypes at Wilmington, including Aircraft 5. Seven days before Wilson’s and Freisner’s flight, the government supervisor at Wilmington had suspended flight operations there and stopped payments to Boeing until the company took action to stop the problem. Boeing dew up an anti-FOD plan and the flight suspension was lifted the morning of June 11.
Freisner was copiloting that day only because the engineers had needed so much time to get Aircraft 5 ready. The scheduled copilot had a doctor’s appointment he didn’t want to miss, so Freisner offered to substitute. Like Wilson, Freisner knew something was wrong within seconds after they took off. Aircraft 5 heaved into the air unsteadily, wobbling from side to side like a patient standing up after months of being bedridden. Wilson couldn’t make it do what he wanted. The stick felt sluggish, unresponsive. In nearly three decades of flying, he’d never had an aircraft behave this way. As he struggled with the stick, Freisner said, “Look, let’s get on the ground now.”
“Yeah, we’ve got to get it on the ground,” Wilson muttered, clearly too busy to talk.
Jim Schaefer was in the flight test center tower, watching on closed-circuit video with some flight test engineers. “Aren’t we paying our pilots enough, or are we not training them enough?” Schaefer cracked as they watched the Osprey weave.
Almost as soon as Schaefer spoke, he could see that Wilson had decided to land. Still teetering, the aircraft eased down gradually to about six feet, but then rose back up to about 15. It eased down again, this time getting to two or three feet off the ground, but then rose back up to 10 feet or so. It started settling again, then went back up, then down, this time more slowly. Finally the wheels touched the ground. As they did, the Osprey started acting like a rodeo bull in the starting gate. First it shrugged left, then hard to the right. As it did, it bounced off its right tire and rolled left so violently the bottom of the nacelle on that side bashed into the asphalt, crushing its base like a beer can. Now the Osprey leapt into the air as if stung.
From his right side seat in the cockpit, Wilson hadn’t seen what hit the ground, but he’d felt the impact. When he did, he added power to lift up and try to land again, as helicopter pilots often do when they aren’t happy with a landing. But as the Osprey got back up to 15 feet or so, it truly seemed to have a mind of its own. The more Wilson tried to control it by moving the stick, the more out of control the Osprey got. From the tower, Schaefer and the engineers watched dumbstruck as Aircraft 5 moved away from the camera toward a concrete runway in the distance. Inside the cockpit, Wilson’s brain was overloaded. He was wrestling with the stick, which by now was making the Osprey do the opposite of what Wilson was asking. The Osprey’s wing rolled wildly to the left, then wildly to the right, then back to the left so far that the left rotor dug into the concrete, spewing chunks of composite as its blades disintegrated. With the right rotor still intact and whirling, the Osprey performed a ghastly pirouette on its left nacelle, heeled over like a sinking ship, burrowed its nose into the runway, then plowed along with flames and black smoke pouring from underneath until it skidded to a stop.
Freisner’s left-side copilot seat was flush with the ground when they came to rest. He looked back toward the cabin and saw a gap where the fuselage had cracked open just behind the cockpit on his side.
“Grady, there’s a hole back here we can get out of!” Freisner shouted as he unbuckled his lap belt and shoulder harness. “Follow me!” Then Freisner scrambled out and ran.
Wilson was hanging nearly upside down. He heard Freisner yell to follow him, but Wilson’s training kicked in. Instead of following Freisner, Wilson jettisoned the cockpit window on his side, struggling with a metal handle until the glass popped out, then unstrapped and climbed out onto the overturned nose of the Osprey. He jumped about 10 feet to the ground and stumbled away from the wreck to where Freisner was standing, next to a yellow fire truck whose crew had responded within seconds and was spraying foam on the fire. A giant column of black smoke was billowing up into the sky from the Osprey’s left side.
Wilson had some scrapes on his face, but his most severe injury was a badly bruised heel from jumping off the fallen Osprey. Freisner didn’t have a scratch. The fire crew put out the blaze quickly, but the aircraft itself would have to be written off. It had flown less than two minutes.
The next day, Navair suspended all Osprey flights pending an investigation. TV stations and newspapers around the nation were reporting on the accident. This was just the kind of publicity the Osprey didn’t need. Weldon tried to douse any sparks of doubt before they could ignite opposition. “The point of the prototypes is to work out any bugs or problems with the system,” he told the Delaware County Daily Times. “I’d rather it happen now than with Marines on board.”