FORT WORTH, Texas -- For 11 years, Connie Gruber and Trish Brow have lived in the shadow of a tragedy and with a stigma they would like to erase.
Their late husbands, Marine pilots Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow, each with an exemplary record, were at the controls the night of April 8, 2000, when the MV-22 Osprey they were attempting to land in Marana, Ariz., suddenly rolled uncontrollably, crashed and exploded. All 19 Marines aboard died.
It wasn't long before the official finger of blame was pointed at Brow and Gruber. A "combination of human factors" -- a series of mistakes and misjudgments -- caused the crash, according to the Marine Corps investigation.
That explanation was translated into "pilot error" by the media, commentators and even, in so many words, by some Marines.
It's a verdict that Connie Gruber and Trish Brow want to see changed -- for their husbands' legacies and for their children who, in the Internet age, will forever see their fathers' names linked to that crash. John Brow and Brooks Gruber, the widows say, were victims as much as any of the other Marines on the V-22 that night.
They were doing their best to test and prove the value of the Osprey. It was an aircraft that their Marine Corps leaders desperately wanted and that they themselves believed had enormous military potential. But it was an aircraft and a program fraught with problems.
"That tragic accident was the direct result of the crewmen being tasked with an insurmountable, premature mission in a dangerously immature aircraft," Connie Gruber said.
Now a fellow Marine V-22 pilot has come forward to defend his dead colleagues and make much the same argument. Lt. Col. James Schafer, who retired in 2006 after 25 years, was flying one of the four MV-22s (two flights of two planes) on the mission that ended so tragically.
The Marines and the secretary of the Navy "should exonerate" the pilots, Schafer said. "Let's remove the dishonor."
The accident was a result of too much pressure from the Marines and others who were trying to get the Osprey program into production, says Schafer, who was assigned to the V-22 test program from 1994 to 2000. "The program was pushed too hard," he said. "We pushed too hard. The best Marine Corps pilots we had became overwhelmed with the push."
A decade later, the Osprey seems secure. The Marines have dozens of V-22s in service and many more ordered. Both widows say they're pleased that the bugs were eventually worked out of the Osprey.
"The Marine Corps got their airplane," says Trish Brow said. "Now my husband deserves to get his name cleared."
Connie Gruber has a doctorate in education and works for the University of North Carolina Wilmington in a program that involves elementary school teachers. She is not bitter or angry, she says, but is on a mission.
"I'm a happy, healthy person. I've healed. I do this for Brooks. He's a man who can't speak for himself. I do it for his daughter."
Brooke Gruber, 11, is named for her father. She was just 6 months old when he left their North Carolina home in early 2000 for two months of V-22 testing in Arizona.
Ospreys based at nearby Marine Corps Air Station New River fly over Wilmington, N.C., regularly. Brooke has read about the accident, her mother says, and once asked, "Did Daddy do something wrong?"
Trish Brow is a real estate agent in California, Md., near the Navy's Patuxent River test center where her husband was based. Their two sons, Mike and Matt, are 19 and 18. Matt recently graduated from high school.
Over the years, the two boys have heard and read about the accident. "The Marine Corps was happy to let it be misperceived as pilot error," said Trish Brow, and she wants that changed for her sons.
"Their dad was a wonderful human being who was following another airplane, doing his job, and terrible things happened," she said. "It's not right to leave these guys (the pilots) hanging out there."
Within months of the crash, Connie Gruber began writing to the Marines, Pentagon officials and members of Congress saying the two pilots had unfairly been blamed. Trish Brow joined the effort. They found an advocate in Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., whose congressional district includes Jacksonville, Brooks Gruber's hometown, and major Marine Corps bases.
Jones has lobbied both Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to clear the pilots by stating in their personnel records that "it was not pilot error" that caused the accident.
Schafer, a staunchly loyal Marine who remains close to the families of his dead colleagues, has assisted Jones. "Somebody needs to defend 'Boot' (John Brow) and 'Chuckie's' (Brooks Gruber's) honor other than their widows," Schafer said.
They were superb pilots, Schafer says, anything but the reckless cowboys that even some fellow Marine pilots have portrayed them as. But neither had had much flying time in an MV-22.
John Brow, 39, was a career C-130 airplane pilot with more than 3,700 total hours. He had learned to fly helicopters to get into the V-22 program and had only 97 hours at the controls of an Osprey, only a dozen flying the aircraft while wearing night vision goggles.
Brooks Gruber, 34, had had more than 2,000 hours' flying time in Marine helicopters before transferring to the Osprey program. At the time of the crash he had had just 86 hours of flight time in a V-22 and only 16 hours flying with night vision goggles.
"Boot was the most conservative" of the test team, Schafer said. "He called it by the book. We used him as our sanity checker. Chuckie was gifted behind the controls." He had a feel for flying and didn't over- or undercontrol an aircraft.
Schafer is an advocate for the Osprey, considers it a great airplane and believes its full potential has yet to be exploited. But he says there is plenty of blame to go around for the crash: The Marines, Pentagon, Bell Helicopter and Boeing all bear some responsibility.
A Marine spokesman, Capt. Brian Block, said the finding of "human factors" as the cause of the accident should not be equated with pilot error or blaming the pilots.
"Whenever a mishap like this occurs, we owe it to our Marines to take an honest, dispassionate look at all possible contributing factors to ensure it does not happen again," Block said. "The investigations into this mishap revealed that human factors contributed to, but were by no means solely responsible for, this mishap.
"These findings in no way impugn nor denigrate Maj. Gruber and Lt. Col. Brow's reputations as Marine officers, Marine aviators, and MV-22 pioneers. Maj. Gruber and Lt. Col. Brow were selected as pilots for what, at the time, was a brand new airframe precisely because of their courage, skill, and impeccable records."
Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Tamara Lawrence said Mabus reviewed the crash investigation reports and "determined their conclusions still stand: that it was a result of a chain of events which, taken together, resulted in the loss of very talented and brave Marines."
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