San Diego Union Tribune

June 4, 2005

Tilt-rotor Ospreys face crucial test at sea after rigorous land trials

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – The Marine Corps' MV-22s are more than halfway through a demanding operational test program that will determine whether the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft will ever fly combat missions.

Although Pentagon rules restrict the information that can be released until the aircraft's operational evaluations are finished, military and industry officials involved in the Osprey program indicated that the tests are going well.

VMX-22, the Marines' experimental tilt-rotor squadron conducting the evaluation, has completed more than a month of simulated combat missions in California and Nevada and has returned to its North Carolina base for a crucial set of operations at sea, said 2nd Lt. Geraldine Carey, a Marine public affairs officer.

The squadron's eight aircraft flew more than 600 hours during the rigorous trials, which duplicated the demanding mountain and desert conditions in which Marine helicopters are operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those operations included combat assault missions carrying infantrymen from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Carey said.

The last time the Ospreys carried troops from the 1st Marine Division was in April 2000, when an MV-22 crash at Mirana, Ariz., killed 19 Marines, including 15 from Camp Pendleton. That crash and one in North Carolina eight months later that killed four Marines prompted an 18-month grounding and major changes in the aircraft.

VMX-22 now will take the Ospreys to sea, conducting operations that will involve multiple aircraft flying on and off of an amphibious assault ship. Those tests should be completed by month's end, Carey said.

Then the Navy's director of Operational Test and Evaluation will write a report that could determine the Osprey's fate.

If the tests demonstrate that the Osprey is operationally effective and can be operated and maintained efficiently, Pentagon procurement officials could clear the aircraft for full production and the Marines could begin forming a combat-ready squadron.

Carey would not describe how the tests are going because of the ban on commenting while the tests are under way.

But the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that military officials and executives from the manufacturing consortium of Bell and Boeing helicopter divisions were pleased during appearances this week at an American Helicopter Association conference in Texas.

The V-22, which can take off and land like a helicopter but can rotate its rotors forward to fly twice as fast and three times as far as any chopper, is intended to replace the Marines' Vietnam-vintage CH-46E and CH-53D helicopters. A modified version, the CV-22, is intended to replace MH-53 helicopters in the Air Force Special Operations Command.

The manufacturers still must work to cut the cost of the V-22s if the Marines are to afford the 360 Ospreys they want. The Air Force wants to buy 50 and the Navy may buy 48.

The Ospreys currently cost about $74 million each, twice the expected cost when the program began 20 years ago.

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