San Diego Union-Tribune

May 2, 2001

Criticism muted at congressional Osprey hearings

By OTTO KREISHER 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps' troubled MV-22 Osprey program, facing its first congressional scrutiny since its latest fatal accidents, glided through surprisingly light opposition yesterday.

None of the members of key Senate and House committees that reviewed the controversial tilt-rotor troop transport's fate indicated any interest in terminating the program.

After a somewhat contentious start of the daylong hearings, the focus shifted to how long it would take to correct the flaws that contributed to failing marks in the revolutionary aircraft's tests and to three fatal crashes in nine years.

But the program still faces studies by lawmakers, who will have to provide billions of dollars to keep it going, and by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's gantlet of defense review panels.
  
Support for the hybrid aircraft also could be affected by the Pentagon
inspector general's investigation into allegations that the commander of the sole Osprey squadron, and perhaps his superiors, conspired to hide serious maintenance problems. The results of that probe are expected later this month.

The aircraft takes off and lands vertically, but tilts its rotors to fly like an
airplane.

The day started on a strained note when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., opened his panel's hearing by saying: "I remain greatly concerned about this program."

Warner, an unabashed champion of most defense programs, noted that the Osprey offered greater capabilities than the aging helicopters. But then he added: "I must question whether the improved performance is worth the additional cost and, apparently, the additional risk to those who must operate these aircraft."

Addressing four aviation experts who made up a blue-ribbon panel that
recommended the Osprey be delayed and modified but not canceled, Warner said he questioned whether the identified problems could be corrected.

That theme was continued by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the committee's top Democrat, who said the Osprey "is operating under a significant cloud of doubt." Although he has supported it in the past, Levin said, his continued support "is yet to be determined."

But almost every other member of the Senate panel openly supported the Osprey or appeared mollified by the commission's findings that there was no inherent safety problem with its tilt-rotor technology, which combines the attributes of an airplane and a helicopter.

And, by the hearing's end, even Warner seemed to soften in the face of the strong endorsements from the commission members, the leaders of the Marine Corps and the Special Operations Command -- which want the Osprey -- and two junior Marines who fly in it.

The Osprey took even less fire in an afternoon hearing by the House Armed Services Committee's procurement panel.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Floyd Spence, R-S.C., observed that he had seen many defense programs that had trouble at the start and turned out fine. But he was troubled, as was Levin, by how the program could have come so close to full production before all the major safety problems were identified.

By the end of the morning hearing in the Senate, Warner was pressing the commissioners on how long it would take to correct the Osprey's flaws.

"Optimistically, I think it can be done in the neighborhood of a year. And pessimistically, I think it can be done in perhaps two years, depending on how the pieces of the puzzle fall," said commissioner Eugene Covert, professor emeritus of aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Said the commission chairman, retired Marine Gen. John R. Dailey: "We're not talking about technology problems. These are production problems."

Marine Gen. James L. Jones said the Marines had been struggling to keep their badly worn helicopters flying for several years already and assumed they could keep them going for two more.

Dailey and Norman Augustine, a retired aerospace industry executive, said the key issues were redesigning the engine enclosures to prevent the chronic hydraulic leaks, and conducting the flight tests needed to minimize the risk of a condition known as vortex ring state.

The December crash of an Osprey in North Carolina that killed four Marines was caused by a hydraulic leak complicated by failure of the flight control computer system. The MV-22 that crashed in Arizona a year ago, killing 19 Marines, went out of control after encountering vortex ring state, which causes a rotor to lose lift due to turbulence from a rapid descent.

The warmest endorsement for the Osprey came from Maj. Karsten Heckl and Staff Sgt. Thomas Fowler, a pilot and crew chief from the Osprey training squadron.

Fowler said the only pressure he felt was the unwarranted criticism directed at the squadron.

"I have complete confidence in the aircraft," he said.