April 21, 2001


The Osprey saga: A deadly study in impatience, haste
   Tilt-rotor warplane got too little testing



WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps wanted a replacement for its worn-out CH-46 helicopters in the worst way. And, with its rushed handling of the revolutionary tilt-rotor Osprey, that is exactly what it got.

A deadly combination of production and testing shortcuts, overly aggressive pushing of a complex technology and insufficient funding has contributed to four crashes and 30 deaths in 10 years. The accidents and soaring costs have left the once-promising MV-22 program facing certain delay and possible cancellation after two decades and $14 billion.

And the accidents have raised troubling questions about whether the military, facing an array of pressures as it retools for the 21st century, is too prone to fatal trade-offs in the high-stakes business of weapons acquisition.

"By any standard you could use, I would describe (the Osprey) as a troubled program," aerospace expert Norman Augustine said at the conclusion of a blue-ribbon commission's three-month scrutiny of the MV-22. "It is not ready today for operational use. It's not close to it."

The panel of four aviation experts decided unanimously Wednesday to recommend that Osprey production be virtually frozen and the program be subjected to intensive and lengthy redesign and testing before it is allowed to go forward.

The panel's conclusion came only four months after the Marines were pushing for -- and were expected to get -- authority to start rapid procurement of 360 Ospreys at a cost of more than $20 billion.

But two fatal crashes in eight months and allegations that officers were falsifying the Osprey's unacceptably bad maintenance records put the brakes on that idea.

That the Osprey came so close to full production with so many problems is considered a classic example of what is wrong with the Defense Department's procurement system.

Charles Spinney, a Pentagon program analyst and frequent
whistle-blower, said the accident-marred Osprey "is a case study in what can go wrong" with the weapons acquisition process.

The Osprey appeared to have everything going for it when the program was launched in 1981.

There was a demonstrated need: The Marines' CH-46s were getting old and hard to maintain, and the failure of the 1980 hostage rescue attempt in Iran showed the limits of helicopter technology.

And there was a promising answer: the tilt-rotor's combination of a helicopter's vertical takeoff and landing ability with an airplane's speed and range. It was the most revolutionary aviation innovation since the jet engine and already had decades of development.

The MV-22 started as a four-service project that would produce more than 700 aircraft. But it quickly ran into the classic Pentagon dilemma -- too many programs chasing to  few dollars.

The Army dropped out, deciding to stay with the cheaper and less capable H-60 Blackhawk and the Marines had to cut their request to 360 aircraft from 425.

Then, Dick Cheney, as defense secretary, tried to cancel the program in 1989 because of rising costs and technical problems. But the Marines considered the Osprey's leap-ahead capabilities the key to their future status as the nation's 911 force.

The contractors saw in the tilt-rotor not only a $40 billion bonanza from the Pentagon, but tens of billions more in sales to foreign militaries and to civil aviation interests trying to beat the growing airport congestion.

And because the MV-22 production was strategically dispersed over 43 states, there was a built-in pork-barrel constituency in Congress that could be energized by the Marines' unrivaled lobbying skills and the defense contractors' campaign contributions.

As a result, Congress overruled the administration two years running and kept the Osprey alive. Its future appeared secure when Democratic candidate Bill Clinton endorsed the program in the 1992 campaign and President Bush dropped his administration's opposition.

But there still was not enough money for all the programs, and the Navy, which controls funding for the Marines, had other priorities for its limited aviation dollars.

A former MV-22 program manager blames some of the Osprey's problems on the fact that once Congress gave the Navy official control of the program's funds; "they shifted money out that could have gone to early development and testing."

The Osprey also ran into the common problems of new weapons systems. The early models were overweight, over budget and falling short of performance goals.

It was at that point that the contractors and the Marines began to make what proved to be fatal trade-offs.

To cut weight, they chose a hydraulic system working at 5,000 pounds of  pressure, more than twice that of most aircraft systems, and running through tissue-thin tubes of titanium, which is strong but does not wear well.

To save more weight, the size of the engine casing was reduced. That meant the hydraulic lines were jammed together with thick bundles of electrical wiring, which rubbed holes in the titanium tubes during the vibrations of flight.

The result was chronic hydraulic leaks that helped make the Osprey a maintenance nightmare and contributed to two of the fatal crashes.

The shortage of funds and the difficulty in keeping Ospreys flying led to another fatal decision -- to skip scores of the flight tests that were called for and that could have revealed the aircraft's problems before 23 Marines were killed.

There is no evidence, for example, that the contractors ever conducted flight tests exploring in detail the tilt-rotor's response to vortex ring state, a condition that causes loss of lift in a rotary-wing aircraft. Most of the tests on that critical flight condition were done in simulators, based on models developed from traditional helicopters.

But the MV-22 crash that killed 19 Marines in Arizona a year ago showed tragically that, unlike helicopters, the twin-rotor Osprey quickly develops an uncontrolled roll when it encounters the condition.

Flight tests to examine that condition started only after the fatal crash.

Similarly, it took the December crash in North Carolina that killed four Marines to force the contractors to thoroughly test the computer software that directs the MV-22's complex flight control system.

A former Marine pilot involved early in the MV-22 program said neither of the contractors had ever built an aircraft with the technical complexity of the Osprey.

The history of the Osprey program is filled with other examples of the dangerous consequences of pushing a high-tech aircraft program faster than the money, the technology and human capabilities can handle.

But it is an all-too-common experience, according to government and private experts who study defense procurement programs.

Katherine Schinasi, the General Accounting Office analyst monitoring the MV-22, said the recurrent problem with the program was "the unknown unknowns" -- the technical or mechanical flaws you cannot fix because you do not know they exist.

That happens when a program is pushed into production before the developmental testing has revealed and solved the problems inherent in complex new systems, Schinasi said.

GAO and the independent Defense Operational Test and Evaluation Office issued repeated warnings over the last decade that the Osprey was moving too quickly toward production. They cited concerns over the hydraulics and other issues that emerged as factors in the fatal crashes.

But the Osprey is not the first, and perhaps not the worst, example of a program that went into production before it was ready.

Although four of the first 20 Ospreys have crashed over the last 10 years, the CH-46 had 44 crashes in the first five years.

The Blackhawk, considered a substitute for the MV-22, was grounded repeatedly in its early years of service because of major flaws discovered after deadly crashes and has killed 59 servicemen in the last nine years.

The Navy's F-14 Tomcat became notorious when eight of the first 11 crashed.

But although the Osprey has had fewer crashes than many other aircraft at similar stages of their development, it rightfully draws greater attention because each crash claims far more lives.

Computer simulations have predicted that the Osprey's technology would save Marines' lives in combat. But it has killed so many Marines during its tragedy-filled development that it may never debut on the battlefield.