US Navy ships, aircraft, and boats are conducting a search-and-rescue mission in the North Arabian Gulf for a missing crew member who was forced to jump out of a MV-22 Osprey Wednesday.
The Osprey lost power upon takeoff from the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship carrying members of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit on deployment to support US military operations in Iraq and Syria.
Two crew members bailed out as the aircraft floundered. One has been recovered and is in stable condition, according to US Navy officials. The search is underway for the other crew member.
The pilot of the aircraft was eventually able to regain control and safely land aboard the USS Makin Island, Navy officials added in a statement. The crew members may have jumped in order to lighten the load as the pilot struggled to keep their Osprey airborne. It's unclear from the Navy statement whether the crew members parachuted or simply jumped at low altitude.
Such events happen “more often than you’d think,” says Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
“We are taught that the safest thing to do is stay with the aircraft all the way through – as the aircraft is foundering around, that’s the safest place to be,” adds Mr. Harmer, who served as deputy director of Future Operations for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain in 2008 and 2009. “But sometimes guys just bail out anyway, because they don’t want to be caught in the aircraft as it’s sinking.”
Ospreys do not have ejection seats for the two pilots, one of whom serves as the commander of the craft.
“It might have been that the pilot told them to get out while the getting is good,” Harmer adds. “Crew members shouldn’t just jump, but it happens anyway.”
The back of an Osprey folds down like a ramp, which pilots often keep open during takeoff.
Frequently pilots and crew members bail out while the engines are still running, says Harmer.
“I know several guys who physically went into the water when one engine in their two-engine helicopter cut out,” he said. With one engine operating, however, they were able to dig the helicopter out of the water.
This occasionally happens with Navy jets as well, Harmer adds. After what is known as a “cold catapult shot” off a carrier flight deck, for example, a pilot might have to struggle valiantly to regain height and speed, or risk ditching the plane into the ocean.
Harmer says he has known of pilots who thought their aircraft was going to crash and chosen to eject, then “watched the airplane fly away without them.”
In the case of the Osprey, while pilots would be strapped in, other crew members might have belts attached to a lifeline, so they can move around the aircraft in order to do their jobs while flying.
For pilots, on the other hand, “One way or another, you’re staying in the bird,” Harmer says. “Either you’re digging it out, or you’re going for a swim.”
Osprey accidents have caused some three dozen fatalities during a combination of testing phase crashes during the 1990s, as well as a combat zone crash since it became operational in 2007.
The aircraft was used extensively by the Marines during the US military’s typhoon relief efforts in the Philippines last November.
“It can do everything a helicopter can do,” says Harmer, “but higher, faster, and further.”