San Diego Union Tribune

April 8, 2004

Progress on Osprey revealed
Military aircraft still faces image hurdle


WASHINGTON While painting a positive picture of their progress, officials of the V-22 Osprey program yesterday admitted they still have to fight the tilt-rotor aircraft's negative image created by three fatal crashes and a long record of production problems.

The Osprey faces a critical program decision early next year that could put the controversial aircraft into a higher production rate. That would virtually ensure it as the Marine Corps' long-sought replacement for its Vietnam-era CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters.

"We know we are still working to enhance our credibility and the trust" of the public and the military and congressional officials who will decide the Osprey's fate, said Air Force Col. Craig Olson, the military program manager.

"I like the direction it's going," Olson said during a media briefing that detailed the progress of the V-22's test programs and preparation of a Marine squadron that will conduct a crucial operational evaluation.

At the briefing, the contractors' program director bristled at the media attention given to a number of relatively minor problems with new Ospreys, including a recent emergency landing in Atlanta of a V-22 that had just left the assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas.

If any other aircraft had made a similar unplanned landing, it would not have been a story, Bell-Boeing Vice President Michael Tkach said. "Airplanes go down. . . . We know we have not changed the image because if an (Osprey) goes down, the media reports it" and refers to "the troubled V-22 program," Tkach said.

The cause of the unexpected landing, an oil warning light, apparently was a false signal and the aircraft soon continued to its new home at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.

The Ospreys have had a number of other minor mishaps recently, including one new aircraft that shed an access panel in flight because of faulty fasteners and an older aircraft that experienced an oscillation, or unexpected movement, during a test flight.

Olson said the minor oscillation, which occurred during an unusual maneuver that operational pilots would not attempt, is being corrected by a simple mechanical change and revisions of the flight control computer software.

Olson cited a number of positive actions in the V-22 program, including accumulation of more than 1,600 accident-free flying hours since flight tests resumed. That includes 320 hours by crews of VMX-22, the Marine tilt-rotor demonstration squadron that will conduct the operational evaluation beginning next year.

Olson said the test program for the modified Ospreys that will be flown by Air Force Special Operations crews has fallen behind schedule because of aircraft availability problems. They are working to correct those problems, he said.

The V-22 officials also said the Navy has confirmed its expected purchase of 48 Ospreys by putting money in their future budgets for the first acquisitions. The Navy is third in line of the U.S. services currently planning to buy the Osprey. The Marines want 360 Ospreys to replace the CH-46s and the Air Force seeks 50 to replace CH-53 helicopters and some C-130 transports.

With its ability to rotate its turbo-prop engines, the Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane. The aircraft currently cost $74 million each.