Pentagon Clears V-22 to Start Flying Again After Three-Month Grounding

Naval Air Systems Command lifted the grounding order on its V-22 Osprey fleet on March 8, and Air Force Special Operations Command announced it would take a phased approach to get its CV-22 variant of the tiltrotor aircraft flying again after a three-month pause in operations. 

AFSOC grounded its Ospreys Dec. 6 following a deadly November crash off the coast of Japan in which eight Airmen died. Naval Air Systems Command then grounded all of the Pentagon’s V-22s, rendering the military’s entire fleet of 400-plus tilt-rotor aircraft unusable. 

In a statement, NAVAIR said senior Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps leaders coordinated to craft “risk mitigation controls to assist with safely returning the V-22 to flight operations.”

In its own statement, AFSOC outlined a three-step approach to getting its CV-22s back in the air and its crews fully qualified and comfortable flying again:

  • Phase 1: “Ground and simulator training integrating planned flight controls, safety briefings, a review of maintenance records and refining by-squadron training plans to implement the new safety protocols.”
  • Phase 2: A “multi-month program” for aircrews and maintainers to regain proficiency and mission currency, with maintainers in particular getting training on the new safety protocols implemented by NAVAIR. “Each squadron will progress through this phase at different speeds based a variety of factors including maintenance requirements for aircraft, experience level of personnel in the squadron and weather impact to flight schedules,” the AFSOC statement read.
  • Phase 3: A return to full operations, including exercises and deployments.

Neither NAVAIR nor AFSOC specified in their statements the findings of the investigation into the November crash, the deadliest Air Force flying mishap since 2018, but said they are taking new safety protocols.

“Some of the mitigation and controls put in place are focused on maintenance actions including increased inspections—on a more frequent basis than previously—as well as new procedures when responding to standard and emergency situations that arise in flight,” an AFSOC spokesperson told Air & Space Forces Magazine.

Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder told reporters on March 8 that Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III believes the Osprey is safe to fly.

“The Secretary is confident in the steps that have been taken to return it to flight,” Ryder said. “Safety is the most important thing. He recently had the opportunity to receive an update from the service secretaries and chiefs on the steps that are being taken and, again, is confident in their decision.”

The dynamic V-22 has long been a controversial aircraft, with safety concerns driven by its unique ability to hover like a helicopter and fly like a propeller airplane. The November crash was the first fatal Air Force V-22 accident since 2010, but it followed three Marine Corpse crashes since the start of 2022 and raised from 12 to 20 the number of military members killed in recent accidents. 

The Air Force last grounded its CV-22 fleet in 2022, after two incidents of “hard clutch engagement,” a situation in which the clutch slips, causing a fail-safe system to transfer power from one engine to the other, at which point the clutch would re-engage, generating enormous spikes in torque. Hard clutch engagement was blamed for causing one of the deadly Marine Corps crashes. 

In February 2023, the V-22 Joint Program Office imposed flight-hour limits on “input quill assemblies,” a V-22 component believed to be responsible for the hard-clutch engagement problem. 

What caused the crash, however, remains unclear. AFSOC said its initial findings suggest a material failure, rather than pilot error, and the command confirmed it had identified which part failed in the deadly crash, but had not yet concluded why the failure occurred. NAVAIR and AFSOC officials told Air & Space Forces Magazine on March 8 had did not have new information to announce on the cause of the crash.

There are three ongoing Air Force reviews regarding the CV-22, AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind said last month at the AFA Warfare Symposium:   

  • A Safety Investigation Board is investigating the crash and should provide findings to prevent future mishaps  
  • An Accident Investigation Board will determine the causes of the crash and be released publicly  
  • And a broader review intended to answer the question, “Is the CV-22 force appropriately organized, trained, and equipped for safe, effective, and efficient special operations?” Bauernfeind said. 

In addition to the Air Force reviews, the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability and the Government Accountability Office are conducting their own investigations into the V-22 fleet and its safety. 

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, released a statement criticizing the decision to lift the grounding order.

“DOD is lifting the Osprey grounding order despite not providing the Oversight Committee and the American people answers about the safety of this aircraft,” Comer said. “The House Oversight Committee has yet to receive adequate information requested from DoD as part of our ongoing investigation launched months ago into the safety and performance of the Osprey aircraft. Serious concerns remain such as accountability measures put in place to prevent crashes, a general lack of transparency, how maintenance and operational upkeep is prioritized, and how DOD assesses risks. “

Since 1991, the Osprey has suffered 10 fatal crashes, killing 57 service members. That performance has garnered a reputation for accidents that proponents argue is unfounded, noting that V-22 safety data is comparable to other aircraft. 

While the aircraft does offer unique capabilities, Pentagon officials seem increasingly focused on developing newer platforms to replace the Osprey. 

“There’s been upgrades to this technology that was basically developed in the 1980s,” Bauernfeind said. “And as we move forward, what are the future capabilities that will eventually provide the next generation of capability?”  

Bell Helicopter, which developed the Osprey, is developing a next-generation tilt-rotor aircraft, the V-280, for the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program. That uses a simplified system to transition from vertical to horizontal flight, moving only the propellers, and not both engines as it transitions.