View Full Version : Troubled Osprey could fly missions for Marines by '07

10-01-05, 06:55 AM
Troubled Osprey could fly missions for Marines by '07

The Marines' V-22 Osprey, the helicopter-airplane hybrid that has survived a rocky two decades of development and controversy, could be carrying Marines on combat missions in Iraq or Afghanistan within two years, military officials said Friday.

The Pentagon this week gave Boeing Co. and Textron Inc.'s Bell Helicopter division the green light to start building 400 of the $100 million aircraft, 360 of which are slated for Marine units.

Capt. Jerome Bryant, a spokesman for Marine air programs at the Corps' headquarters in Virginia, said Friday that the first squadrons of Ospreys are destined for East Coast-based Marines, who will probably be the first ones to try out the hybrid aircraft in combat.

The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter and can cruise at the speed and range of an airplane.

Though its development was plagued by problems, including crashes that killed more than 20 Marines, military officials say the Osprey has been redesigned and will be key to its operations.

Units on the West Coast, including Miramar Marine Corps Air Station, Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms and Yuma, won't get the new aircraft until fiscal year 2010, Bryant said.

The new Ospreys won't completely replace the existing West Coast fleet of CH-46 helicopters until 2014, he said.

Marines 'jumping' for Osprey

The Osprey can carry up to 24 combat-loaded Marines as far as 500 nautical miles and can be refueled in midair, allowing it to travel to more than 1,000 nautical miles in a single mission.

Marine leaders, desperate for a transport helicopter to replace its existing Vietnam-era fleet, have hailed the hybrid as an aircraft that will revolutionize the way Marines fight wars ---- allowing them to "jump" or "leap" deeper and faster into enemy territory.

Camp Pendleton's highest-ranking general, I Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. John Sattler, has been a strong proponent of raising a fleet of Ospreys for the Marines.

Sattler, who led tens of thousands of local Marines in Iraq last year and will lead more than 10,000 back to Iraq in a few months, said the Osprey would be key to operations in Iraq right now.

"(You) would actually be able to put yourself at the right place at the right time without having substantial forces, forward operating bases, forward arming and refueling points throughout the area by virtue of having the capability that an aircraft like the Osprey gives you," he told a panel of military analysts and Marine officials at the American Enterprise Institute in August.

"I'd love to have it," he said. "I'd like to have it right now."

A bumpy flight to approval

While Marine leaders got the production go-ahead they have wanted, the mass production and deployment of the Osprey is bound to be as controversial as its development.

Critics still call it an expensive death trap for battle-bound Marines.

The V-22 has been hobbled by design problems since the Navy started the research and development in the early 1980s.

The program was temporarily halted by then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in 1989, when Cheney and other defense officials said it was too pricey to be practical.

Test flight crashes over the next decade killed several of the most experienced Osprey pilots and crew.

Then, in 2000, two Ospreys crashed in separate incidents, killing 23 Marines and jeopardizing the entire program.

Those accidents were followed by reports that Marine officials had falsified maintenance records and evaluations, and that contractors had certified parts and gear that were substandard. Several Marines were later found guilty of misconduct and the commander of the V-22 test squadron was relieved of command.

Under more intense scrutiny by the military, Congress and the media, the flights resumed even as a design flaw that was a factor in at least one of the earlier crashes was deemed inherent to tilt-wing design.

The problem, often called "vortex ring state," allowed the aircraft to fall into its own rotor turbulence and lose control during fast descents at low air speed ---- a type of maneuver that is key for combat helicopters.

Some still say nay

In final tests this year, military officials said they had tempered the rotor turbulence problem with new computer software that alerts the pilot if he or she is in the dangerous turbulence and then takes over to slow the descent.

A report by the Congressional Research Service published in January acknowledged that many of the touted virtues and values of the Osprey were still being debated.

Eric Miller, a military investigator for the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Project On Government Oversight, says that even after the latest testing and certification, he's among those who are still not convinced.

"It's still a dangerous aircraft," Miller said by phone Thursday.

Miller said he has spoken with pilots, crew members and people who have been involved in the test flights who say the computer solution to the "vortex ring state" problem takes critical control away from the pilot.

He said the computer-dominated aircraft is fast in cruise mode but does not easily make aggressive, evasive maneuvers needed in a combat situation.

The Osprey also has no defensive weapon system, an omission on which military leaders have been reluctant to comment.

Miller said he believes the Marines need a new helicopter so badly that they have been blinded to the Osprey's flaws.

He said the enthusiasm for the technology ---- which may have commercial applications ---- combined with the mounting budgetary investments in its development created a momentum that inevitably ensured the production of an Osprey whether it was combat ready or not.

"Once these programs get going, it's like a snowball going downhill," he said. "It's hard to stop."

Troops asked to have faith

Despite such lingering doubts, military officials have asked Marines to trust in the Osprey.

During the recent final round of operational evaluations, Pendleton's 1st Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, said he felt safe when he flew an Osprey.

"I wanted to come out here to look you in the eyes to tell you that this is a good aircraft," Natonski told a group of Marines in April, according the Marines' news service.

The troops were loading onto one of the aircraft with full battle gear and weapons for an evaluation flight in Twentynine Palms.

Natonski promised them that the design glitches implicated in the pair of crashes in 2000 had been fixed.

"That was a different aircraft," he said, according to the Marine publication. "They've completely redesigned the engine pods. They've put in new computer software, and today the aircraft you're flying on ---- the one I flew on ---- has been completely redesigned."

He let them know how they should feel.

"I'm not afraid to fly in it," he said, "and I know you are not, either."

After a final round of operational evaluations that concluded this summer, including missions launched from ships and from land, the Osprey passed the Defense Acquisition Board's final review, giving the Pentagon the OK to start full production.

Officials said 48 of the new aircraft could be ready each year, replacing the entire fleet of CH-46E helicopters in about 10 years.

Contact staff writer Darrin Mortenson at (760) 740-5442 or dmortenson@nctimes.com.