Osprey Critics will be watching mock missions
Dallas Morning News 09/25/04
author: Richard Whittle
COPYRIGHT 2004 The Dallas Morning News, L.P.
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, NEW RIVER, N.C. - Two buddies from Austin watched raptly as a pair of V-22 Osprey aircraft started rolling down a runway, tilted their big wingtip rotors 60 degrees forward and vaulted into the cloud-covered sky.
"I like 'em," Pfc. Marc Aldrich enthused.
"I don't," replied Pfc. James Gayheart. "That's death right there."
Neither Pfc. Aldrich nor Pfc. Gayheart claims to know much about the Texas-built Osprey, which was nearly canceled four years ago after two crashes killed 23 Marines.
The two 19-year-olds, flight mechanics on other types of aircraft, joined the Marines together and were spending a day off at the Marine base's 2004 air show. Wary of getting in trouble, they emphasized that they were speaking only for themselves.
But their impressions of the V-22 reflect the Osprey's still- alluring promise and its checkered past.
After years of turmoil, the V-22 is scheduled to take a major step in January, the beginning of "operational evaluation." That means mock combat missions, including some carrying Marines. That sort of test cost a four-man crew and 15 other Marines their lives at Marana, Ariz., in April 2000. Four others were killed in a crash later that year at New River in North Carolina.
Dressed in civilian clothes, Pfc. Aldrich and Pfc. Gayheart were among several thousand at the Sounds of Freedom Air Show in New River last Saturday, where the Osprey made its first public flight demonstration since the 1995 Paris Air Show.
The appearance was a prelude to the next stage in the Osprey's recovery. The two crashes nearly ended the $48 billion program and resulted in a 17-month grounding, a redesign and more than 3,000 hours of new flight tests.
"I thought it was maybe the coming out of the V-22," said Lt. Col. Christopher "Mongo" Seymour of Houston, who flew one of the Ospreys in the New River air show.
The program's director, Air Force Col. Craig Olson, said he and other officials recognize that they are on "a steady journey of rebuilding the image" of the Osprey.
There is widespread division of opinion on the V-22, built in Fort Worth and Amarillo by Bell Helicopter Textron Inc., in partnership with the Philadelphia-area helicopter division of Boeing Co.
Marine leaders are fairly salivating - they have been for years - to get a troop transport that combines the agility of a helicopter with the range and speed of an airplane. They plan to buy 360 of the $73 million aircraft, which they say will get troops into and out of combat far faster than helicopters.
"This will have, I believe, the greatest impact on the Marine Corps ... of anything we're doing in the Marine Corps, because it allows them a much larger range of operations," Navy Secretary Gordon England said after riding in a V-22 in August.
But critics still argue that the tilt-rotor concept is too aerodynamically risky and the V-22 too costly and unreliable to go into service with the Marines.
"When you look at it over the long term, every time they say they've got it fixed, something breaks," said Eric Miller of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank often critical of the military. "It hasn't fallen out of the air yet again, which everybody's feared. But my sources tell me that they still haven't shown that they can do the combat maneuvering."
Going into operational evaluation is "a big step," said Philip Coyle, the Pentagon's director of Operational Test & Evaluation from 1994 to 2001.
"That's where they were years ago when they had the accidents," recalled Mr. Coyle, now a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information. "I guess I would characterize my attitude as 'wait-and-see.' "
This time, the evaluation follows a redesign of the V-22's troublesome hydraulics system, a rewrite of the plane's flight-control software and thousands of hours of flight tests to prove that the Osprey's ambitious design isn't inherently unstable or otherwise flawed.
"They keep saying that they're improving the aircraft," Mr. Coyle said. "I hope that's true.
"The issues when they get to realistic operational testing will be: How reliable is the aircraft? How dependable is it? How costly is it to maintain? And, of course, have they solved the various issues that have been factors in accidents and safety incidents that have come up over the years?"
If the evaluation goes as program officials hope, a high-level Pentagon committee will decide next year whether to ask Congress to fund "full rate production." That would mean increasing V-22 purchases from the 11 a year Bell and Boeing have been making to as many as 48 a year by about 2012.
A successful operational evaluation also would allow the Marines to put the V-22 into service. Current plans call for the first squadron of 12 to begin carrying Marines on missions in fall 2007.
But the January evaluation schedule will be kept only if the Osprey continues to perform well in flight tests, said Col. Glenn "Bluto" Walters, the commander of squadron VMX-22, which will conduct the operational evaluation.
"We will start the tests when it's ready," Col. Walters said. If he thinks it isn't, he won't hesitate to tell Col. Olson so, he added.
Col. Walters also said the operational evaluation is designed to put the V-22 through every stressful situation the Marines can envision. Eight V-22s are to fly more than 400 hours over deserts, in the mountains and at sea.
"We're going to take the aircraft to just about every climate and place," Col. Walters said. "I believe that's our moral obligation to do for our fleet."
Citing his 15 years as a test pilot, the colonel also declared that the five months of tests planned for the Osprey "is the most robust operational evaluation I've ever seen an aircraft have to go through."
Since the V-22 returned to flight in May 2002, equipment problems have led to several precautionary landings - such as when an engine's cooling fan fell apart on an Osprey as it hovered over an amphibious assault ship in June. But the program has reported no crashes or close calls.
Any that might occur once operational evaluation begins could threaten what V-22 advocates regard as a remarkable comeback over the last four years.
"This aircraft will not be out of the woods probably ever," said Osprey backer Frank Gaffney, a former assistant secretary of defense.
Col. Walters is a realist on the issue.
"Is there going to be another V-22 crash? Hey, we don't have any planes that don't crash," he said. "I just hope that it's years in the future.
"If we crash one, there'll be a lot of questions to answer."