Book Excerpt: The Short Life of Aircraft Five

The only flight of the Osprey’s fifth prototype lasted less than two minutes, and it was one wild ride.

After a troubled development, the MV-22 was deployed to Iraq in 2007; it's shown here being refueled for a 2008 mission. (U.S. Navy /Chief Mass Communication Specialist Joe Kane)
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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.”

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