San Diego Union-Tribune

April 19, 2001


Save the Osprey program, but go slow, panel says


WASHINGTON -- A blue-ribbon panel studying the fate of the Marine Corps' troubled Osprey program voiced serious concerns yesterday about the aircraft's safety and design but nonetheless unanimously recommended that the project continue.

The commission concluded that the revolutionary tilt-rotor MV-22 was the best aircraft suited for Marine missions but said the aircraft needs various repairs and redesign work before it can return to flight.

"The (M)V-22 is probably the best answer available," panel member Norman Augustine said. "It's not ready today, though, for operational use -- not close to it."

The panel considered whether to cancel the Osprey program and start from scratch but decided the option would be too expensive.

"This aircraft can do the job and it can be made to work," said the chairman of the commission, retired Marine Gen. John Dailey.

The Osprey program has two ties to the San Diego area.

Last April, an Osprey crashed near Tucson, Ariz., killing 19 Marines, including 15 from local bases. An investigation blamed the pilot for descending too quickly, causing the aircraft to lose lift and crash.

The Marine Corps hopes to replace its aging fleet of CH-46 helicopters with 360 MV-22s. The service wants to place up to 108 Ospreys at San Diego County bases. An environmental study is under way and Marine officials predict any basing of Ospreys will be four years off.

The commission voiced concerns over the production, testing, management and funding of the program. The commission then insisted on extensive changes and rigorous testing before the airplane-helicopter hybrid resumes operational flying.

In the meantime, only the "minimum number" of aircraft should be produced to keep the program alive, the commission said.

"That will be our recommendation to the secretary of defense, that he proceed with a restructured program," Dailey said after a 31/2-hour public session.

The Osprey can fly at speeds up to 275 miles an hour and carry 24 people. It takes off and lands like a helicopter but has twin engines that rotate 90 degrees, allowing it to fly like a regular airplane.

The four-member commission's decision yesterday drew qualified support from the widows of some of the Marines killed in Osprey crashes and was endorsed by the Marine Corps. But it was quickly condemned by some defense critics, who demanded the $40 billion program be canceled.

After $12 billion and 14 years of effort, "the Osprey's numerous technical problems show that nothing short of a complete redesign of the aircraft, which is prohibitively expensive, will fix these problems," said John Isaacs, director of the Council for a Livable World and a vocal Osprey critic. "The Osprey should be killed."

The commission will make its recommendations official in a report Tuesday to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld already is conducting wide-ranging reviews of the national security strategy and programs, which started with a skeptical view toward many of the weapons systems he inherited from the Clinton administration.

The Pentagon's decision on the Osprey program will have to be ratified by a Congress that is struggling to sustain more weapons programs than current budgets will support and has become leery of the Osprey's growing cost and accident record.

The Osprey was slated to go into full production last year and be operational late this year. But the present fleet of seven aircraft was grounded and production frozen after an MV-22 crashed during a training flight Dec. 11 in North Carolina, killing the four Marines on board.

Four of the widows of Marines killed in the Arizona crash watched the commission hearing and generally approved of its action.

"That was the recommendation we wanted -- proceed, but slowly," said Stacy Nelson, widow of Staff Sgt. Brian Nelson, the flight's crew chief.

Sherry Kennedy, widow of 1st Lt. Clay Kennedy, platoon leader of the squad riding aboard the Osprey, said the families' "singular goal is to make certain that no other Marine family ever has to endure a similar tragedy because this aircraft is not safe."

Patricia Brow and Connie Gurber, widows of Lt. Col. John Brow and Maj. Brooks Gurber, the pilots of the crashed aircraft, said they had an additional goal: to reverse the accident board's finding that pilot error caused the Arizona crash.

Brian Alexander, an attorney representing 14 families from the Arizona crash, said the commissioners' statements gave him hope that the two pilots would be absolved of blame.

The Arizona crash was attributed to vortex ring state -- a condition that helicopters experience when they descend too rapidly at a slow airspeed and the rotors lose lift. The Osprey flown by Brow and Gurber was trying to get down quickly behind the lead MV-22 and was dropping at nearly three times the rate of descent recommended in the flight manual.

But while vortex ring state is common to all helicopters, its effect on the Osprey, which has twin rotors mounted on the end of short wings, was not fully understood prior to the accident, the commission was told. The
side-by-side position of the MV-22's engines means one rotor may stall before the other, causing an uncontrolled rolling action.

Brow's aircraft rolled sharply and dove into the ground when it encountered vortex ring state.

"The (M)V-22 is vulnerable to VRS (vortex ring state), which was forecast by the engineering community," Bryan O'Connor, a commission aide, told the panel. But its roll-inducing effect was unforeseen, O'Connor said.

Alexander argued that the MV-22 contractors, Bell and Boeing helicopter divisions, knew of the problems but did not tell the Marines. Therefore the two pilots had no idea what would happen or how to recover.

The commission insisted that the tilt-rotor's vulnerability to vortex ring state has to be more fully tested.

The panel also recommended extensive work to improve the Osprey's poor reliability and excessive maintenance requirements, which have sharply restricted the aircraft's flight-testing and training schedule.

It also called for additional engineering studies and testing of the aircraft's complex computerized flight control system. The December crash was attributed to a hydraulic leak, which disabled part of the rotor control mechanism and was compounded by a failure of the flight control software.

The commission also urged that money saved by curtailing production in the next few years be used to make the improvements and conduct the tests necessary to make the Osprey safe and effective.

Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, said he shared the panel's concerns about the Osprey's reliability and funding but was encouraged by its recommendations to continue development.

"This is a capability our nation needs to meet the operational requirements of the 21st century," Jones said in a statement.

"It's not a surprise," said defense analyst Chris Hellman with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank that advocates smaller defense budgets.

"Realistically, they couldn't kill (the Osprey), so they chose the safe middle," Hellman said. "It's still status quo."

Meanwhile, the leader of a residents' group that has protested the basing of helicopters at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station said yesterday's decision reaffirms his belief the Osprey isn't ready for routine flight operations.

"It's not just the lives and safety of Marines at stake, it's the lives and civilian population of San Diego County," said Jerry Hargarten, president of the Move Against Relocating Choppers Here coalition.

In addition to Dailey and Augustine, commission members are Eugene E. Covert, an aeronautics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and retired Air Force Gen. James B. Davis. Dailey and Davis are veteran military pilots.

Staff writer James W. Crawley and The Associated Press contributed to this report.