San Diego Union Tribune

April 2, 2005

Marines begin testing troubled Ospreys
Hope is to clear craft for combat

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – The Marine Corps' high-priority but trouble-plagued MV-22 Ospreys have begun flying in the mountains of Central California, starting an extensive series of operational trials that will determine whether the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft will be cleared for combat duty.

The trials will shift later to the Southwestern desert, then aboard Navy amphibious ships in the Atlantic.

After a delay caused by poor manufacturing quality, an experimental Marine squadron began the formal operational evaluation Monday. The trials, which are expected to continue into late June, will attempt to prove that the Osprey can effectively perform a wide range of missions and can be maintained by Marine mechanics and technicians.

The aircraft's performance will be judged by the Navy's Operational Test and Evaluation Command, not by the Marines.

A successful evaluation would allow the Pentagon to authorize full-rate production of the Osprey and to clear the Marines to begin forming the first combat-ready MV-22 squadron.

A failing grade could result in cancellation of the program after two decades of accident-marred effort, the death of 30 Marines and manufacturers' personnel and the spending of billions of dollars.

The Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter but can fly twice as fast and three times as far as any chopper, is intended to replace the Marines' Vietnam-vintage CH-46 and CH-53D helicopters. Although it has been the Marines' top aviation priority since 1981, it has been plagued by soaring costs, production problems and fatal accidents.

The operational evaluation is being conducted by Marine Tiltrotor Test and Evaluation Squadron 22, which was created to perform the trials and to develop procedures and doctrine for future operational units. The unit, VMX-22, has eight aircraft and 172 Marines, including 19 pilots and 20 crew chiefs, involved in the evaluation, a Marine spokeswoman said.

VMX-22 is flying the first phase of the operational trials from the military's mountain training center in Bridgeport, northeast of Yosemite National Park.

After the high-altitude testing, the squadron is expected to relocate to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., to operate in heat and desert conditions similar to the Middle East and Persian Gulf region.

The squadron later will return to its home base at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., for another round of tests, including operations from amphibious ships at sea, 2nd Lt. Geraldine Carey said.

The trials in the desert will bring the Osprey back to the area where a crash five years ago killed 19 Marines and nearly doomed the program. The April 2000 fatal crash at Mirana, Ariz., and another crash that December that killed four Marines forced an 18-month ban on flying and several high-level reviews of the program.

Since returning to flight, Ospreys have flown more than 1,200 hours without an accident, but have experienced a number of problems, usually caused by poor quality production by the manufacturing team of Bell Helicopter and Boeing.

The Marines hope to buy 360 MV-22s, the Air Force wants 50 Ospreys, and the Navy may buy 45.

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