Center for Strategic Communication

Don Harvel, near his home in Georgia. Photo: Kendrick Brinson/Wired

Don Harvel thought he was cruising to a well-deserved retirement after 35 years flying cargo planes for the U.S. Air Force. Then in the spring of 2010 he was tapped to investigate the fatal crash of a high-tech Air Force tiltrotor aircraft – and everything changed.

What Harvel discovered about the controversial hybrid aircraft drew him into a battle of wills with his superiors at Air Force Special Operations Command. Harvel, then a brigadier general, uncovered evidence of mechanical problems — and resulting safety woes — in the V-22 Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane. These are issues the Pentagon has been eager to downplay. So when Harvel refused to alter his findings to match the Defense Department’s expectations, he knew that was the final chapter of his decades-long military service. Harvel’s long-planned retirement was held up for more than two years, effectively silencing him during a troubling chapter in the Osprey’s often-troubled history.

“I turned [my report] in and I knew that my career was done,” Harvel says.

Despite three decades of development costing billions of dollars, the V-22 is still not nearly as safe as its proponents insist. In the past year alone, the military has assigned full blame for two Osprey crashes – one of them fatal – on pilot error. Those calls were questionable, at best. The Pentagon and the V-22′s manufacturers likewise dismissed concern over two emergency landings by stricken Ospreys. All the while, Harvel had to keep quiet.

No longer. In an exclusive interview, Harvel says the military is “trying to turn all eyes away” from the Osprey’s ongoing safety woes. “Especially in Congress.”

After all, Congress controls funding for the $36-billion V-22 program, and has the power to finance (or not) the U.S. Marines and Air Force as they work to more than triple their Osprey fleets. The military is beginning to rely on the temperamental but high-performance tiltrotors for a wider range of important missions; there’s even talk of Ospreys hauling the White House entourage on presidential trips. The Pentagon has also laid out a controversial plan to base 24 Ospreys in Japan. The Defense Department insisted that the speedy, long-range tiltrotor is “critical” to its Pacific war plans, but Japanese officials have justifiably questioned the V-22′s safety.

Harvel’s retirement paperwork finally cleared a few weeks ago. Now, the former Texas Air National Guard C-130 pilot is free to publicly share his opinion about the Osprey: that it’s “just not quite there yet.” The two crashes and another incident this year are proof of that.

“We need to invest money to fix this thing or change the way we’re operating it,” Harvel says. But the Pentagon has other priorities, he adds. “One of the things that is most noticeable to me is the military trying to get the [Air Force] CV- and [Marine] MV-22 to the forefront to get as much positive publicity as possible.”