Thursday, May 3, 2001

Pentagon panel reports to Congress
on Osprey aircraft investigation

By Sandra Jontz, Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — It wasn’t easy, he said, but Sen. Carl Levin hesitantly vowed Tuesday to continue his support for the Marine Corps’ next generation of a war- fighting machine.

Despite promising accolades about the MV-22 Osprey aircraft tossed around by military leaders and now a Pentagon-commissioned blue ribbon panel of experts, a hodgepodge of questions continues to trouble the Democrat from Michigan.

How did an aircraft with so many documented problems — known to the crew and its leaders — come within days of getting approval for full-rate production, Levin wants to know.

Why was an aircraft with a questionable reliability rate allowed to transport 19 Marines before crashing in an Arizona desert and killing the crew? Why did a commanding officer of the Corps’ sole Osprey squadron allegedly order his crew to falsify records?

Why the fatal problems?

The troubled program and allegations of wrongdoing cast a "significant cloud of doubt" on both the program and the Corps’ mission, Levin said.

But the program is not beyond repair, the four-member panel, appointed by former Defense Secretary William Cohen to investigate the Osprey, assured the senators during testimony at an Armed Service Committee hearing.

In April, the panel recommended against stopping all production of the unique aircraft, which cruises like a propeller-driven airplane but takes off and lands like a helicopter.

The Osprey is intended to replace the Corps’ aging medium-lift aircraft known as the CH-46E and the CH-53D. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., urged officials to repeatedly state the helicopters range between 30 and 40 years. Warner said the fact needed stressing so the public could understand the dire need for replacement aircraft — and one that has twice the speed of regular helicopters, five times the range and triple the payload.

There’s no evidence of a conceptual flaw in the idea of a hybrid aircraft, panelist Norman Augustine, a former military pilot, said, meaning engineers aren’t "trying to fight the laws of nature."

But there are design defects that contributed to the crashes that killed 23 Marines last year alone, and 30 since 1992.

The panelists did not "discover" the problems on their own. The deficiencies were pointed out to them by Marines or manufactures of the aircraft, Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing.

Angry senators wanted to know how this was allowed to happen — that officials knew of problems and let the aircraft continue flying.

There are several explanations, the panelists said.

The computer malfunction that contributed to the December crash was not discovered until after the crash. No one knew about it beforehand.

Though the hydraulic line problem, which tends to chafe after repeated use, had been known for many months, yet no one knew the severity of the problem — and the manufactures were in an ongoing process to correct the problem.

The Corps has too much pride and honor to deceive anyone — especially one of their own, said Commandant Gen. James Jones.

"I draw the line that we would knowingly, intentionally or recklessly accelerate the rate of the program" and endanger fellow Marines’ lives, he told the senators. "I am satisfied we tried to bring the program along as safely as possible."

Testers focused more attention on the productivity of the aircraft — its speed, range and payload — instead of placing equal attention on the reliability of it, said panel chairman retired Marine Gen. John Dailey.

The survival of the $38 billion program depended largely on the panelist’s finding. Now it’s up to Congress and a separate Pentagon Inspector General’s investigation into allegations the North Carolina squadron’s commanding officer ordered his crew to falsify maintenance records because of alleged pressure from Corps leaders to speed testing phases of the program.

All eight of the Corps’ Ospreys have been grounded since the December crash in North Carolina.

Testing isn’t done like in the past, said Augustine, who was trained under the mentality "what can we break and how can we break it."

In today’s military, the approach seems to be cost-prohibitive, he said. Instead, aircrafts get minimal testing that is nowhere near as vigorous as in yesteryears, he said.

"We’d intentionally try to break things," he said. "Today, not enough of that is done. Today, its more cautious, less exhaustive and less probative."