Darkness engulfed the Arizona desert as the first of two aircraft closed in on the landing zone. The mission, part of the Marine Corps' controversial evaluation of the V-22 Osprey, called for a simulated communication blackout.

Lt. Col. Jim Schafer, who was co-piloting one of two other Ospreys that were trailing the first pair, sensed a problem as he watched their descent. "These guys are too high," he said aloud told his co-pilot​. His decision not ​to maintain break ​radio silence has haunted him for the last 16 years. 

It was April 8, 2000, and seconds later, that Ospreys​ lost lift, flipped and plummeted to the ground. All 19 Marines were killed, marking one of the deadliest test flights in U.S. military history. The second Osprey encountered its own trouble, slamming to the ground and skidding 100 yards before coming to a stop. Miraculously, no one in that aircraft was seriously hurt. The Marine Corps would blame the pilots, Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gruber, for causing the deadly crash, refusing to back down from that conclusion even after a formal investigation cleared Brow and Gruber of wrongdoing.

MARINE CRASH

Workers investigate the crash scene of a Marine MV-22 Osprey north of Tucson, Ariz., on April 9, 2000.
Photo Credit: Jon Hayt/Associated Press

It's a well-known story, in large part because one congressman, Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, waged a relentless battle to clear the pilots' names. As the years went by, his effort seemed to become more futile. The service's senior-most leaders appeared uninterested at best in the congressman's argument, Jones told Marine Corps Times — heartlessly dismissive at worst. At least one, Gen. James Amos, had a direct role in ensuring the Osprey program was seen as a success during its turbulent test phase

The Defense Department intervened earlier this year, issuing a long-awaited ​letter to Jones and the pilots' families formally absolving Brow and Gruber [[[[CAN WE SAY THIS NEXT PART? IF NOT SCOLDING, IS THERE ANOTHER WORD?]]] ​and gently rebuking the Marine Corps for its obstinance. For Jones, whose persistence came to irritate Marine Corps headquarters, the decision marks an important moral victory — right overcoming wrong. For the pilots' widows, it brings the closure they've so desperately sought since burying their husbands. 

For Schafer, who says he suffers from survivor's guilt, the resolution represents far more. Marines never leave their brothers and sisters behind, he said. Everyone who participated in the Osprey's development — the ground crews, the pilots and the generals orchestrating it all — faced immense pressure to meet benchmarks and deadlines. Failure was not an option, even if it meant fudging the truth [[[THAT FAIR?]]]​. Brow and Gruber were victims, he said, of an overly aggressive effort to field this aircraft before all of its many engineering problems were fully resolved. Blaming them for the crash was a sin, Schafer said. They deserved better. 

"It took us 16 years to bring our guys off the battlefield," he said. "We left them there, and we finally brought them home with honor. That survivor’s guilt that I live with — that I didn’t call on them to wave off, that I didn’t want to break radio silence — well, that letter helps me." 

Brow and Gruber joined the Multi-Service Operational Test Team almost a decade at least ​before the MV-22 aircraft ​reached initial operational capability, a phrase the military uses upon declaring new aircraft and vehicles safe and fit for duty. Being a part of this team was an honor, said that would put the brand new aircraft through rigorous tests was an opportunity ​Connie Gruber, Brooks Gruber's widow said her husband was thrilled about​. "He believed in its mission," she said.

Schafer, who'd already been with the team for had joined the test team ​a couple of years, before Gruber and Brow and ​wrote the Osprey's training plan for pilots learning to fly the aircraft, [[[WHAT'S THIS? ADD A DESCRIPTIVE CLAUSE]]]​. Everyone on the test team, he said, the rest of the team ​shared that sentiment. "We wanted to be the guys doing it," Schafer said​. "​When we walked into a room," he recalled, "people would say, 'There’s one of those V-22 guys.'" 

Maj. Brooks Gruber: A dedicated Marine, test pilot

Connie Gruber describes how her husband, Brooks, believed in the mission of the plane in which he eventually died.

Over time, though,

Schafer said

​the test team felt pressured to meet unrealistic deadlines. The Osprey acquisition program was deemed vital by

a critical one for

​the Marine Corps, whose "medium lift" helicopter fleet — comprising the venerable Vietnam-era CH-46 Sea Knight — was wearing out. The service's leaders bet big — real big — on the Osprey. Its

, and the service needed a great deal of funding — the

​ projected initial cost of

was

​$30 billion came saddled with enormous scrutiny

​from Congress

to deliver it to the fleet

​. The

That left the Marine

​test pilots felt obligated to deliver favorable feedback, Schafer said. They weren't allowed to be

, instead of allowing them to be

​ 100 percent objective.

"On one hand," he said, "we wore a blue hat to test and evaluate it. Then we also had a green hat. We should never have had our green hat on while testing."

388573 02: Connie Gruber, right, widow of co-pilot Major Brooks Gruber who was killed during the April 8, 2000 crash of a V-22 Osprey plane in Marana, Arizona, holds a photo of her husband and her baby girl Brooke as she listens at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee May 1, 2001 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. The committee is meeting to receive a report from the special panel reviewing the Marine Corps'' V-22 Osprey program. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)
388573 02: Connie Gruber, right, widow of co-pilot Major Brooks Gruber who was killed during the April 8, 2000 crash of a V-22 Osprey plane in Marana, Arizona, holds a photo of her husband and her baby girl Brooke as she listens at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee May 1, 2001 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. The committee is meeting to receive a report from the special panel reviewing the Marine Corps'' V-22 Osprey program. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)

Connie Gruber, right, widow of co-pilot Maj. Brooks Gruber, holds a photo of her husband and their daughter, Brooke, as she listens at a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2001.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Connie Gruber recalled feeling

's wife, Connie, said she felt

​like the Marine Corps had so much riding on the Osprey's success that the machine became more important to the service's leaders than the people tasked with operating it

began put this machine ting equipment, programs and promotions before its people

​. Corners were cut routinely, she said. Skipped or

There were hidden dangers due to

​inadequate testing led to hidden dangers

and skipped testing, she said

​. "The fatal factor," she added, "would be the greediness that took the program from event-driven to timeline-driven."

"It was so obvious that we were pushing an aircraft that had no business being run through an operations evaluation," Schafer added. "We were testing an aircraft that was under-cooked. Our job was to test it ... and deliver a favorable report to the department of test and evaluation."

The demands were

Schafer what the pilots were called on to do under such demanding timeframes was

​"almost impossible," he said. "We were great people trying to make great things happen, but we made some bad decisions as a brotherhood."

For example, the night of the crash

, in Arizona, for example,

​ marked

was

​the first time the test team was authorized

ever able

​to put four Ospreys in the air. U

p u

​ntil that point, there had been so many mechanical flaws that the Marines

with the V-22s that there were

​never even had that many up and running at one time

once

​.

There were so many unknowns. The

that the test

​pilots weren't always certain how the aircraft would respond under certain rigors. Schafer had his own close call

with the aircraft

​while switching positions with another Osprey during a nighttime formation flight. As his

the

​aircraft

he was in

​picked up

a bit of

​speed, it rolled

to a full

​80 degrees before the flight-control computers kicked and stabilized it, he said

in to help right the aircraft

​.

Eight months after the 19 Marines were killed in the Arizona crash, four more Marines were killed during a test flight in North Carolina. The Marine Corps temporarily grounded its Ospreys as a result program. A at that point, the program had claimed — but not before 30 lives people had died testing the new aircraft.

Another

One of the

​unknown, the one investigators ultimately determined to have caused the Arizona crash,

of that ultimately caused Gruber and Brow to crash

​was a phenomenon called "vortex ring state." If an Osprey descends

ed

​ too quickly, with enough forward speed, air

a vortex ring system

​can engulf the rotors and cause them to stall

aircraft to lose lift

​. No one

Since the Osprey has 18-foot wings, Schafer said it wants to stay in the air and fly at higher altitudes. At the time of the crash, no pilots flying the Osprey

​knew how to correct the aircraft in such a

that kind of

​dangerous state.

Lt. Col. John Brow, one of two pilots who died during a controversial 2000 test flight of the OspreyÊtilt-rotor aircraft.ÊCourtesy photo.
Lt. Col. John Brow, one of two pilots who died during a controversial 2000 test flight of the OspreyÊtilt-rotor aircraft.ÊCourtesy photo.

Lt. Col. John Brow

Photo Credit: Courtesy photo

Brow and Gruber were among

"They were two of the best pilots in

​the Marine Corps' best pilots, Schafer said,

and

​yet they did not recognize the conditions that precipitated

onslaught of

​their deaths

," Schafer said

​. That troubles him to this day. "There’s something wrong with that," he said, embittered still by the pressures the pilots faced

Marine Corps' willingness, time and again,

​that led to compromised standards

[[[FAIR?]]]

​.

That, Schafer said, was a result of the constant compromising and under-testing the pilots on the test team were forced to deal with. In addition to testing the Osprey that night in Arizona, Schafer said Gruber and Brow were also flying as Weapons and Tactics Instructor students, which was why it was a no-communication event.

The Marines never should've been flying as test pilots and WTI students, he said, but the Marine Corps was going to need pilots who could teach others to fly the Osprey, so there was "inappropriate motivation" for the pilots to continue that night.

"I should've waved them off," Schafer said. "I should've said, 'Hey guys, stop.' I should've put my blue hat on as operational test director, said 'I work for the Navy right now — we're testing an aircraft. ... But I had my green [Marine Corps] hat on that night."

The

After the

​Osprey crashed nose first and burst into flames. Schafer and his co-pilot were forced to circle the site

horrific scene

​for 45 minutes. Their orders were

in order

​to ward off any media who tried

trying

​to capture imagery of the scene

es of the site

​.

"It was a horrible thing that happened that night," he said. "And where was all this pressure coming from? It's not like we were saving hostages that were about to be taken out by ISIS or something — our enemy was the pressure from the timeline."

Eight months after the Arizona crash, four more Marines were killed during a test flight in North Carolina. The Marine Corps temporarily grounded its Ospreys as a result. At that point, the program had claimed 30 lives.

The

Connie Gruber recently visited her husband's grave with the document she'd been waiting years to hold. As she laid the

​six-page letter absolving Brow and Gruber was written by

from

​Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, a retired Marine officer who was on active duty as the Osprey was developed. Connie Gruber took the letter to her husband's grave site in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and laid it on the ground beside

next to

​his headstone

more than a decade and a half after he was killed, a weight was lifted from her shoulders. Her husband and Brow finally have their military honor rightfully restored, she said

​. He and Brow "

[They]

​can now rest in peace knowing their names exemplify the Marine Corps' values of honor, courage and commitment," she

Connie Gruber

​said.

A redemption letter left on a grave

Connie Gruber describes the moment when she put a letter absolving her husband, Brooks, of any part in a mishap that cost him and another pilot their lives.

John and Trish Brow had two children who are now in their 20s. The Grubers' daughter was a baby when the crash happened. Brooke, who is named for her father, is 16 years old. Brow's widow, Trish, said the

It wasn't an easy

​letter was tough to read, forcing

Trish Brow said, as it forced

​her to relive the

her worst

​nightmare. Still, the anniversary of the crash was

But it made April 8

​a little easier

to deal with this time around

​. "The load wasn’t as heavy this year," she said.

Daughter of fallen pilot reflects on his legacy

Brooke Gruber was a baby when she lost her father and she is following in his footsteps by being active in Air Force JROTC.

The widows banded together three months after the crash, when

to help clear their husbands' names after

​the Marine Corps issued

put out

​a news

press

​release stating

three months after their deaths that stated that

​"the pilots’ drive to accomplish the mission appears to have been the fatal factor." They felt their husbands had been dishonored, and the Marine Corps, Gruber said, didn't seem to care.

Headlines followed reading Connie Gruber said the minute she saw the release, she knew it dishonored the pilots. "A front-page headline quickly followed and boldly screamed, 'Pilots to blame!'" she said.

​"

...

​My questions and concerns," she said, "were never fully, properly, nor seriously addressed

by the Marine Corps

​."

The two enlisted the help of Jones and Schafer. Together, they've met with a slew of experts, lawyers, Marines and other top defense leaders, all while juggling holding their families together after the crash. Connie Gruber has a 16-year-old daughter, Brooke, who's named for her dad and was just a baby when he was killed. Trish Brow's two children are now in their 20s.

Marine Corps officials said there has been "no change" to the way public affairs releases information about aviation mishaps as a result of this crash. "We never have talked about an ongoing investigation and don't until a report is issued," said Capt. Sara Burns, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon. "Then we speak to what the report says."

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work

Photo Credit: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Air Force

Work first began looking into the case last year, and eventually concluded

After years of feeling like no one was interested in helping them, Work, a retired Marine colonel, took on the case in 2015. He concluded that

​the Marine Corps’

July 2000

​press release was inaccurate. Those words, he wrote, "were incorrectly interpreted by many to mean the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Brow and Major Gruber were solely responsible" for the crash.

"There was a lot more behind this accident," Work told reporters after sending the letter. "... It was impossible for me to designate the fatal factor, therefore saying that the pilots were primarily to blame, it was hard for me to do so."

There were clear deficiencies with the Osprey’s development that were fixed after the crash, he wrote in his letter. While human factors did contribute to the crash, "it is impossible to point to a single ‘fatal factor’ that caused this crash," he said. In fact, all of the events leading up to the crash made the April 2000 accident — or one just like it — probable or perhaps inevitable, he wrote. "I hope this letter will provide the widows of Lieutenant Colonel Brow and Major Gruber some solace after the years in which the blame for the ...

the Marana

​accident was incorrectly interpreted or understood to be primarily attributed to their husbands," he added.

The Marine Corps offered little in response to a question about whether the service's public affairs organization

Work's criticism. The service's public affairs organization

​, which oversees media relations, has implemented

no

​policy changes as a result of this case

, she said

​. "We never have talked about an ongoing investigation and don't until a report is issued," said Capt. Sarah Burns, a spokeswoman at the Pentagon. "Then we speak to what the report says."

When Connie Gruber first approached

wrote

​Jones seeking help, he

and asked for his help in clearing her husband's name, the Republican congressman took it on as a personal mission. He

​vowed to her

that

​the

two

​pilots' names would be cleared during his lifetime. "Both families have hurt so badly ever since the accident, and they have been frustrated," he said. "The lawsuits have been over for years. This was

— it's

​just to get a correction to the misrepresentation that the pilots alone are responsible for this."

Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) during a interview February 6, 2013 in Washington DC. Thomas Brown/Staff
Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-NC) during a interview February 6, 2013 in Washington DC. Thomas Brown/Staff

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.

Photo Credit: Marine Corps Times staff file

Jones, whose congressional district

s

​ includes Camp Lejeune and the nearby Marine Corps air stations at Cherry Point and New River, has made more than 100 speeches on the House floor in defense of Brow and Gruber

about the Marines who perished in the April 2000 Osprey crash

​. All of the noise made him

Trish Brow said he would carry the weight if she felt too distraught to try to pursue the case. She was inspired by his sense of integrity — for doing what was right for the individual Marine, even when it's

​unpopular with the Marine Corps' senior leadership.

"Congressman Jones will tell you that we're family now," she said. "There just are not enough words to describe what a good person he is and how he's gone to bat [for us]."

Schafer said Jones serves as a prime example of what congressmen should be doing to stand up for their constituents. For Jones, though, he says the situation it was simple: This was about the difference between right and wrong. There should be an obligation from the living to protect the dead, who can no longer speak for themselves, he said.

"I have in my office a Voltaire quote ... specifically for this journey," Jones said, referencing the 18th century writer and philosopher. "It says, 'To the living, we owe respect. To the dead, we owe the truth.'" The congressman had become

Jones was

​convinced that some within the institution were willing to do or say anything to protect the V-22 program. He'd

had

​met with three Marine Corps

several

​commandants over the years seeking to have

to request that

​the case reexamined:

be given another look, including

​Gen. Michael Hagee, Gen. James Conway and Gen. James Amos, who before ascending to the service's top post was intimately involved in the Osprey's early development.

"They never showed a whole lot of interest in it, no matter what kind of information I had gathered," Jones said. "If they had spent a little more time looking at what I had, and been open minded about it, they would've come to the same conclusion. There were people around the Marine Corps who were unwilling to give these two pilots the benefit of the doubt."

Work's letter arrived in Jones' office on Feb. 11

[[[CAN WE PUT A DATE ON IT?]]]

​.

Over the years, Jones and others with a vested in interest in clearing the pilots' they had gathered loads of documents from experts and investigators. They attempted to organize them so they could present them to Work. The deputy SecDef listened, and took on the case. Months later, Jones received a handwritten note from Work.

​"

Congressman Jones," it states, "as promised, please find my draft letter attached.

​I spent some time crafting it, guided by prayer, research and discussion with a variety of experts," he wrote to Jones in a December draft of the letter. "I know I didn’t go quite as far as you desired, but I believe it does correct the record, and my soul is at peace."

Wife's quest for truth becomes a family's mission

Connie and Brooke Gruber credit faith in clearing Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow.

Jones presented the letter to Connie Gruber and Trish Brow. Both agreed it

that Work's letter

​was exactly what they needed to

finally

​move forward

, and that wouldn't have been possible without Jones and Work, Connie Gruber said

​.

"Congressman Jones did not give up until a fair review of facts was provided," she said. "The continued journey to justice led to Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, who ultimately granted the pilots their final moment of truth."

'Lifesaving contributions'

The

In addition to providing the families with closure, Connie Gruber said Work's

​letter proves that Brow and Gruber were

that the Marines' deaths were not in vain, and that the Osprey

​pioneers who made "lifesaving contributions to the history of Marine Corps aviation," Connie Gruber said. That's true, Schafer agreed. Marines flying the Osprey today follow

new

​protocol

from the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization

​on high rates of descent,

as

​a direct result of the crash

during its testing

​.

An MV-22B Osprey soars over the Pacific Ocean. Despite its troubled start, aviation officials say the aircraft now has a strong safety record.

Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Zachary Dyer/Marine Corps

The Osprey has become

is now

​one of the Marine Corps' most important aircraft. It can travel vast distances, enabling a wealth of

allowing Marines to carry out crisis response and humanitarian relief

missions across the world

globe

​. Despite the challenges and tragedies involved in getting the aircraft fielded, Schafer

, a prior-enlisted Marine who flew the CH-46 and CH-53 before joining the Osprey test team,

​ called it a phenomenal machine. "I love it — it's a wonderful aircraft," he said. "... I truly believe this aircraft is what we wanted to do and needed to do."

Kelly Burdick, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, said the men and women who test new aircraft allow operators and mission planners to better understand how it will perform in various conditions. "Both the strengths and limitations of the system are documented and understood, and built upon over time," she said. "As a result of this continually increasing experience and the updates that are being introduced, the V-22 currently has one of the best safety records in the fleet."

Schafer said that contribution extends to the Marines lost in the back of the Osprey that night. He not only grieves for the four aircrew members, but the 15 other Marines aboard.

In addition to Gruber and Brow, those killed in the crash were: Sgt. Jose Alvarez; Pfc. Gabriel Clevenger; Pfc. Alfred Corona; Lance Cpl. Jason Duke; Lance Cpl. Jesus Gonzalez Sanchez; Lance Cpl. Seth Jones; Cpl. Kelly Keith; 2nd Lt. Clayton Kennedy; Cpl. Eric Martinez; Lance Cpl. Jorge Morin; Cpl. Adam Neely; Staff Sgt. William Nelson; Pfc. Kenneth Paddio; Pfc. George Santos; Pfc. Keoki Santos; Cpl. Can Soler; and Pvt. Adam L. Tatro.

Their role on this mission was equally important, Schafer said. When the military tests new transport aircraft, passengers ride along to

vital to have troops riding along to

​provide feedback on the experience, input that further informs development. Despite the struggle to forgive himself, he knows Brow and Gruber did all they could to save those men

situational awareness and report back any problems they might have experienced so it's known Marines know what to expect once it hits the fleet

​. "

For those grieving families that are still trying to find peace, I want that peace to be without blame of 'Boot' and 'Chucky,'" Schafer said, using the pilots' call signs. "

​Those guys were the best in the Marine Corps," Schafer said. "

... and

​I want people to know that those two Marines did the best they could."

Still, no inanimate object is worth a loss of life, he said. That's the message he's now sharing with firefighters as he speaks out about his survival guilt and helps them to weight unnecessary risk taking carefully.

One thing he regrets is not seeing more Marines stand up for Gruber and Brow. Throughout this years-long struggle, he said he would've liked to have seen "more folks in the brotherhood fighting for this," he said. He was there, though, and Connie Gruber calls his commitment to his fellow pilots "the true meaning of Semper Fi."

"He did not leave his Marine brothers behind in the desert of Arizona," she said.

Pentagon Bureau Chief Andrew Tilghman, Staff Writer Matthew L. Schehl and Video Journalist Daniel Woolfolk contributed to this report. Gina Harkins is the editor of Marine Corps Times. She oversees reporting on Marine Corps leadership, personnel and operations. She can be reached at