San Diego Union-Tribune

November 29, 2001

Marines renew campaign to get Osprey into service
   Pentagon official not convinced problems fixed


WASHINGTON -- Marine Corps officials are pushing to quickly resume flying the trouble-plagued tilt-rotor Osprey, calling it ideal for long-range operations like those in Afghanistan that show the limitations of U.S. helicopters.

The helicopters that flew Marines into Afghanistan last weekend, for example, had to be refueled in flight or at land bases to reach their objective near Kandahar, more than 400 miles from their ship in the Arabian Sea. That distance is nearly twice as far as most helicopters can fly without refueling.

The V-22 Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but tilts its rotors forward to fly like a turboprop airplane, has twice the speed and three times the range of a helicopter. It also can carry more combat-loaded Marines than the aging helicopters it would replace.

"If ever there were events that called for a machine like the Osprey, I think we are there," said Maj. Gen. Dennis Krupp, commanding general of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The Osprey's fate rests with the Pentagon's acquisition executive, Edward "Pete" Aldridge. The former aerospace executive has doubts about the proposed remedies for problems that contributed to four crashes of Ospreys that killed 30 men over the past decade.

Different mechanical failures caused three crashes. The crash on April 8, 2000, in Arizona that killed 18 San Diego-based Marines was blamed on pilot mistakes and the Osprey's challenging flight characteristics.

After a fatal accident in December in North Carolina, the V-22s were grounded and reviewed by a commission of retired senior military pilots and civilian aerospace experts.

The panel found the tilt-rotor concept technologically sound, but recommended redesigning key parts of the aircraft and extensive testing to resolve doubts about its capabilities.

Problems cited by the panel included the leak-prone hydraulic system; the bug-riddled flight control computer software, and the lack of detailed knowledge on how tilt-rotor aircraft respond to a dangerous flight condition called vortex ring state.

The Bell and Boeing helicopter units, which teamed to produce the Osprey, and Navy aviation engineers have developed a program to fix the mechanical problems and a flight test program to answer questions about the V-22's flying qualities.

The commission also concluded that the recommended changes and more money for spare parts and maintenance could improve the Osprey's poor readiness record.

Despite that analysis and a more favorable study by NASA experts in August, Aldridge remains skeptical.

"I don't feel comfortable, at this point, saying yes or no" on whether the Osprey could be made safe to fly, he said. "It's a very complicated airplane. It has a lot of flying characteristics which are yet unknown."

Aldridge has not approved the Marines' request to resume flight testing and the Ospreys remain grounded nearly a year after their last flight.

Navy Secretary Gordon England, a veteran aerospace executive, is committed to changing Aldridge's mind.

"He and I disagree on the technology. I think the program should proceed. I think we do have a way forward to get the airplane back flying," England said in a recent interview.

"It's a capability we would like to have on the Peleliu today," he said, referring to the San Diego-based amphibious ship carrying Marine helicopters being used in Afghanistan.

Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, also is trying to convince Aldridge to remove the cloud over the aircraft that has been his service's top aviation priority for more than a decade.

"I believe we'll get back to some sort of (flight) testing after the first of the year," Jones said.

But, though the Marines are using Afghanistan as an example of how the Osprey's superior range and speed would be valuable, Jones said he will not allow the operational V-22 squadron to resume flying until he is convinced the aircraft is safe and effective.

Jones said the Osprey could start flight tests by January and could be ready for operational flying a year later.

Aldridge has indicated he might authorize a resumption of flight testing by next April or May, if his doubts are resolved. But he suggested it could require two years of flight testing "before we can answer the question of whether or not this is a reliable, safe, operationally suitable aircraft."

The Marines have been promoting the V-22 since the 1980s as a replacement for Vietnam-vintage CH-46E and CH-53D

A number of independent defense analysts agree that the Osprey would be useful in conditions like Afghanistan. But they question the need for 360 of the aircraft for the Marines and 50 for the Special Operations Command.

"It would probably have some utility in this kind of conflict," said Ivan Eland, defense specialist at the CATO Institute. "I've always said we should buy a few for such missions. But frankly, existing helicopters could do the job more cheaply."

Critics also note that the Osprey's tilt-rotor capability is expensive. The Marine version could cost about $40 million each, more than twice the price of a new helicopter.

Because of the cost and early production delays, Dick Cheney tried to kill the program when he was secretary of defense a decade ago, but was overridden by Congress.

The Bush administration supports the Osprey and asked for money in the 2002 defense budget to build 12 more to keep the production line going.

Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command, joined Jones in asking Congress to provide the funds for those Ospreys.

But Aldridge remains the key.

Jones and England expect to meet with Aldridge soon to show him the 18 studies conducted during the past decade that concluded the tilt-rotor was the least-expensive solution. They also will present a new study being finished by the Center for Naval Analysis.

"I'm optimistic that it will be resolved," Jones said.