San Diego Union-Tribune

December 22, 2001

Osprey program gets guarded clearance to resume test flights

By Otto Kreisher
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- A Pentagon official gave guarded approval
yesterday to further testing of the V-22 Osprey, the tilt-rotor
aircraft that's been grounded for a year after crashes that killed
23 Marines.

Assistant Defense Secretary Pete Aldridge insisted on an
extensive flight test period to resolve his "serious doubts about
the safety, reliability and operational suitability" of the aircraft.

He estimated it would take two years of flying by test pilots to
resolve doubts about the revolutionary aircraft. The testing is
expected to start in April at Patuxent River, Md., Naval Air
Station.

Aldridge's approval removes, at least for now, concerns of
Osprey supporters that he would kill the program that has been
the Marine Corps' top aviation priority for a decade.

"We are encouraged," Marine Capt. David Nevers said, adding
that Aldridge's authorization for flight testing "will allow us to
implement our carefully crafted program" to correct the
Osprey's problems.

A spokesman for the Bell-Boeing manufacturing team, Jack
Satterfield, said the Osprey program is confident "that flight
testing will prove the validity of the improvements we are
making."

Aldridge and the Navy secretary will conduct regular reviews of
the test results to assess progress. Until then, the Pentagon will
slow Osprey production to the "minimum sustaining level."

For next year, that will mean 11 Ospreys, for which Congress
earmarked $1.044 billion in a recently approved defense
appropriations bill.

The Marines cannot begin to train their pilots and aircrews until
the test program is completed. That could delay activation of the
first squadron until 2006, three years later than expected.

The delays and the extensive aircraft changes required to fix
problems that contributed to three fatal crashes also will
increase the Osprey's price tag, which already has doubled to
about $60 million each.

Aldridge, a former aerospace engineer and astronaut, had kept
the program supporters hanging while he tried to resolve his
doubts about the safety and effectiveness of the V-22s.

Two groups of aviation experts found no fundamental problem
with the tilt-rotor technology, but Aldridge said: "I personally
still have some doubts. But the only way to prove the case one
way or the other is to put the airplane back into flight test."

Aldridge said there also were separate studies of whether any
other aircraft could match the Osprey's "unique capabilities" of
speed, payload and combat survivability.

"There is no other alternative that basically can do that," he said.

"We would like to see the V-22 succeed in its reliability, safety
and operational suitability. . . . And if we can make that happen,
it will provide our military -- Marine and special operation guys
-- some unique capabilities."

The Osprey can tilt its twin rotors from a vertical position, which
allows it to take off and land like a helicopter, to horizontal,
which enables it to fly like a turbo-prop airplane.

That gives it twice the speed and nearly three times the range of
most helicopters. It also can carry more troops than the
Vietnam-vintage CH-46 and CH-53D helicopters it would
replace.

The Marines want 360 Ospreys, the Air Force wants 50 for its
special operations units, and the Navy is considering buying 48
for at-sea supply and search-and-rescue missions.

But four Ospreys have crashed over a decade of testing,
including three accidents that killed 30 men.

A crash April 8, 2000, in Arizona, which killed 19 Marines,
including 15 from Camp Pendleton, was attributed to pilot error
that put the aircraft into a condition called vortex ring state.

That occurs when the rotors in the helicopter position lose lift
because the aircraft is descending too quickly without sufficient
forward speed, causing the Osprey to flip and crash.

A crash last December in North Carolina that killed four Marines
was caused by a rupture in the high-pressure hydraulic system
and a failure in the computerized flight-control system.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.