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Osprey carries heavy baggage into hearings on craft's future
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- The records of the Marine Corps' Osprey program reveal an aircraft with revolutionary potential but with mechanical weaknesses and flight characteristics that make it a maintenance nightmare and a possible threat to those who fly in it.
An examination of files tracking the MV-22 Osprey's history shows numerous early warnings of flaws that add to the concerns raised by four crashes over nine years, which have killed 30 people.
Those files have been collected by a blue-ribbon commission, created by
former Defense Secretary William Cohen to determine whether the MV-22
program should be canceled, delayed or continued. On the verge of a
production decision that would have virtually ensured its future, the MV-22
program has been frozen until the commission finishes its work.
The commission will hold its first public forum today and it expects to
hear technical analyses from aviation experts, the opinions of supporters
and opponents and the views of relatives of men who died in Osprey
The panel's files record particular concerns over the persistent failure of
the Osprey's ultra-high-pressure hydraulic system, which has been linked to
two fatal crashes and several near crashes.
Another troubling issue examined in the documents is the tilt-rotor
technology that provides the Osprey's leap-ahead potential but creates
aerodynamic challenges that contributed to a deadly accident.
Those crashes and the findings that the Osprey is inherently difficult to
maintain and to fly, and does not meet some of the performance goals that
could justify the program's $40 billion price tag, have put the Marines'
top aviation priority in jeopardy.
The thick files assembled by the commission tell a troubling tale of an
aircraft that -- despite nearly two decades of development, testing and
improvements -- remains mechanically fragile and operationally suspect.
After an eight-month evaluation ending in July, the Pentagon's independent
test director, Philip Coyle, called the Osprey "operationally unsuitable,"
mainly because of poor reliability and the many critical factors that were
Coyle said the MV-22 is "a new-technology, highly complex aircraft whose
reliability has lagged behind expectations."
General Accounting Office analysts were even more critical, saying there is
"significant risk proceeding into full-rate production" because so much
about the Osprey's design and performance is unknown.
And investigators studying the Osprey crash in Arizona last April, which
killed 19 Marines, said the danger of pilots making the same fatal mistake
"appears to be excessively grave."
Outside critics are openly calling for the Osprey to be canceled as too
expensive and unsafe.
Marine Corps officials, however, continue to express confidence in the
Osprey. On Wednesday, the commandant, Gen. James Jones, said the Marines will await the commission's decision but still consider the MV-22 "the safest and best technology" to meet its demonstrated requirements.
The Osprey is intended as a replacement for the Vietnam-era CH-46 and
CH-53D helicopters, which are beyond their expected service life and are
increasingly difficult to maintain.
The MV-22's tilt-rotor technology gives it the vertical takeoff and landing
qualities of a helicopter but the speed and range of a fixed-wing airplane.
Several studies have concluded that those qualities make the Osprey more
capable than any helicopter alternative, but also much more expensive.
One study in the commission files noted that the Osprey's advantages over
helicopters fade on shorter missions and asked "how much the (government)
should be willing to pay for the marginal enhancements."
The commission files also show that the Osprey has failed to meet its
promised performance. The most noticeable shortfall is in the distance it
can fly without refueling.
But of far greater concern are the mechanical and flying problems that
raise questions about whether the Marines can operate the Osprey at a
reasonable level of reliability and safety.
A major concern is the hydraulic system, which drives the tilt-rotor
function and other equipment. The system operates at 5,000 pounds of
pressure, twice that of most aircraft.
All aircraft experience hydraulic leaks, but the Osprey's failure rate is
exceptional, contributing to a poor aircraft availability history that has
hobbled its flight test program. Charts in the files show week after week
in which few or none of the scheduled test flights were flown.
The limited flight testing left many performance requirements untested,
even after the operational evaluation.
Coyle recorded 170 hydraulic leaks during his evaluation, 39 of which he
called safety related. A report by the Naval Safety Center cited three
earlier hydraulic failures that caused fire or smoke.
Hydraulic fluid leaking into an engine compartment was a factor in the 1992
crash of an Osprey at Quantico, Va., that killed seven Marine and
The Marines have said that hydraulic failure also was a cause of the
December crash in North Carolina that killed four Marines.
Another factor in that crash reportedly was a failure of the computer
system that operates the Osprey's complicated flight controls. Coyle
recorded 69 failures of the flight-control computers during the operational
Coyle and the GAO also focused extensively on the problem of "vortex ring
state," a potential problem for all aircraft powered by rotors, but which
appears particularly troublesome in the Osprey.
The condition, which causes a loss of lift, happens when a rotary wing
craft descends too rapidly with too little forward airspeed. In the Osprey,
Coyle said, that condition "occurs very rapidly with little or no warning
to the pilots."
He also noted that vortex ring state, or VRS, is more dangerous in the
Osprey because its twin rotors are far apart, at the end of its short
wings. That can cause one rotor to lose lift before the other, particularly
if the plane is turning, causing a sudden and perhaps uncontrollable roll.
That is what happened in the Arizona crash that killed 19 Marines.
"Such a characteristic is fundamental and cannot be remedied by minor
design changes," Coyle said.
"The only near-term solution is to restrict operations to avoid proximity
to VRS region."
But that raises questions of whether the Osprey can perform the assault
missions it is intended to conduct with those operational limits, Coyle
Program test pilots, however, said their tests indicate that the Osprey can
be flown safely in its design performance range and that the typical combat
mission does not create conditions which make the aircraft prone to VRS.
To its credit, testers found the Osprey to be much more survivable in
combat because of its speed and protective features. The question of
whether the revolutionary aircraft will ever fly into combat may be
answered in April when the commission is expected to issue its report.