Semper Fi

Two Marines Die In Helicopter Crash

On May 23, 1997, Major Michael Browne and Lieutenant Robert Straw went to Fort Worth to pick up a Bell AH-1 Cobra that was getting almost $2 million in repairs at the Bell factory. It was supposed to be a routine, noncombat mission.

Twenty minutes after taking off, they crashed. Both men died. What happened? Scott Pelley reports.
Nobody wants to talk about the crash that killed the two men - neither the Marine Corps nor the helicopter manufacturer, Bell Helicopter Textron. The Pentagon says that the cause of the crash is a mystery. But the deaths of Browne and Straw have exposed a pattern of negligence and lies.

On Michael Browne's arm was a tattoo: "Semper fidelis," the Marine Corps motto meaning "always faithful." Browne graduated from flight school with honors. In return, the Marines offered Browne the choice of piloting any aircraft he wanted.

He chose to fly helicopters. "I think he said it's like being a bird, because you can fly it as a bird flies," his father, Jim Browne, remembers. "You can make it do whatever you want to do."

After 10 years as a pilot, including tours in Iraq and Somalia, Browne had a perfect flying record. He became an instructor.

One of his students was First Lieutenant Robert Straw. Though Straw was new, his family had a tradition of air combat. Both his grandfathers won the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism in World War II. His father won the Distinguished Flying Cross in Vietnam.

In May 1997, Browne and Straw were ordered to go to the Bell plant to pick up a Cobra that just had been fitted with new equipment. Straw told his wife, Mindy, who was pregnant at the time, that the mission was nothing special and that he would be home by Memorial Day.

The Cobra is the Marine's frontline attack helicopter. Powered by twin jet engines, it carries a crew of two and is built in Fort Worth by Bell Helicopter Textron.

Within minutes of leaving the factory, Browne and Straw were in trouble. On the outskirts of Dallas both of the Cobra's engines failed. Browne apparently used the last bit of energy left in the helicopter to maneuver away from a school. The Cobra slammed into a clearing and exploded; both men died.

The day of the funerals, both widows received a strange message from their husband's commanding general.

"We just walked into the room, and he asked how the girls and I were doing," recalls Lynn Browne, Michael's widow. "And then he said, 'I advise you to get a lawyer.' And he basically left the room."

She took this to mean "that foul play was involved. That that helicopter was obviously not fit to fly."

"If Mike could have possibly put it down, he would have," says Jim Browne. "But something terrible went wrong with that aircraft. He didn't put it down, couldn't put it down."

The Marines launched an exhaustive investigation that ultimately became an indictment of Bell. The investigatos found the Cobra was due for five critical repairs; Bell had not completed any when it delivered the helicopter. Investigators also discovered the Cobra had been cannibalized for parts. Maintenance records were such a mess that it was impossible to tell what parts had been replaced or how.

The investigators concluded that Bell knew there were safety problems.

The Marines' report determined the Cobra "should have been grounded" and that "Major Browne had to trust the system to ensure the aircraft was, in fact, safe."

The events just before the crash will never be known: Fire consumed most of the evidence. But the wreckage did show that both engines lost power.

"There's only two things that can cause (the engines to lose power)," says John Howie, a lawyer representing the families in a suit against Bell. "One is for the pilots to intentionally roll both engines off, or for the engines to malfunction. And there was a clear history of engines malfunctioning, and these were very experienced pilots."

The Cobra has been haunted by a mysterious engine problem called "rollback" - a sudden loss of power. The cause is not clear.

Howie says that there have been approximately 100 incidents of this problem. "There were 74 at the time of this accident," he says. "The report suggests there have been a number since then."

Two of the five repairs Bell failed to complete were designed to fix the rollback problem. Still the Marine Corps concluded that it couldn't blame Bell because "there is not enough data to determine the exact cause of the mishap."

The families of the two dead pilots are outraged. "I was just amazed that these people allowed this aircraft to even leave this facility; it just made me cry," says Mindy Straw. "I couldn't believe there was such negligence involved."

The investigation uncovered evidence of negligence that went far beyond the one downed Cobra. The report included an interview with Doyle Eldridge, a Marine sergeant who had been overseeing Bell's work at its plant for four years. Eldridge told investigators that he found "numerous instances of errors, and everyone turns a blind eye to it."

Eldridge complained that critical systems were often assembled incorrectly. He remembered finding a helicopter ready for takeoff with its steering mechanism disconnected. "If the aircraft had managed to get into the air, it would have crashed," he said.

Perhaps worst of all for the families, the investigators found that Bell had not been honest about testing the Cobra. After any major modification, Bell is required to perform a rigorous test flight. Bell's test pilot, Monty Nelson, told investigators that he made the flight himself and performed a "full card test."

But when Howie put Nelson under oath in the lawsuit, the test pilot's story changed. "He said that he didn't do (the test)," says Howie. "And e didn't know anyone who had."

"This is manslaughter," says Lt. Straw's father Bill, who is himself a decorated combat pilot and an engineer. "I don't believe they intended for anyone to be killed. But I also don't believe for a minute that they thought that that aircraft was suitable for flying or that it was ready to go."

When the Cobra was pronounced "ready to go" on Memorial Day weekend, Major Browne had questions.

The U.S. Army keeps an office at Bell to oversee quality control. Major Browne was suspicious of the Cobra he'd been given. He powered up the engines, but they didn't seem quite right. He told the Army representative, Major Terry Reeves, that he wanted to test fly the Cobra right there at the plant. Reeves denied permission. He assured Browne the helicopter had already passed all its flight tests.

At that time Reeves explained that another test would be against regulations.

The Marine investigation found there was no such regulation. The Army simply didn't want to pay for the extra fuel. Flying another test would have cost about $200.

"This one just fell through the cracks," a supervisor in the Army quality control office told investigators after the crash. "I was really busy."

The year of the crash the Pentagon gave that office an award for ensuring "product quality and customer satisfaction."

"Somebody should be responsible," says Mindy Straw. "Held accountable for my husband's life and Michael Browne's life."

There has been no action of any kind taken against Bell. The Marines has kept everyone involved in the investigation under wraps. A Marine representative warned CBS News that if questions were pressed, then the Corps might be forced to raise pilot error as a cause of the crash - even though there is no suggestion Browne and Straw contributed to the accident in any way.

"The Marine hierarchy has said, 'We don't want to investigate this anymore,'" father Bill Straw says. "The Navy has said, 'We don't want to investigate it anymore, and if you keep bringing it up, we have the means, and we'll go after some way to discredit the pilots involved.'"

The families believe the Marines is motivated by its dependence on Bell, virtually the Corps' only supplier of helicopters. Bell is building the Marines' next-generation aircraft, on which the Corps has staked its future. The Marines want to spend $28 billion on the V-22 program. At the time of the Cobra crash, Congress was debating how many V-22s to buy.

"Nobody's being charged here," says Bill Straw. "The only thing that's happened is our sons are dead, the military lost an aircraft, and life goes on as if nothing happened."

Bell declined repeated requests for an interview. In its reply to the families' suit, Bell denies any responsibility for the crash. But the company is offering the families $1 million to drop the suit.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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