11 April 2000

Marines put Osprey on hold Service says investigation of hybrid aircraft's crash could take months

By Andrea Stone

WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps suspended flights of its four remaining MV-22 Osprey aircraft Monday as crews began recovering remains from Saturday's crash, which killed 19 Marines.

A Marine spokesman said it could take months to determine what caused the hybrid aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like a turboprop plane, to dive in a ball of flames during a night training mission in Marana, Ariz. The aircraft plunged as it was shifting its propellers from a horizontal airplane position to vertical helicopter mode.

In the wake of the disaster, some victims' relatives voiced concerns about the Osprey's safety.

Christina Mercier, whose son Pfc. Keoki Santos, 24, of Grand Ronde, Ore., died, said he was ''a guinea pig for these new airplanes.''

William Nelson, the father of Staff Sgt. William Nelson, 30, who was one of four Quantico, Va.-based crewmembers, said his son considered the plane ''experimental'' and complained of frequent mechanical problems. ''He told me it was so fragile,'' Nelson said. ''He didn't think it was very ready to fly yet.''

Capt. Aisha Bakkar-Poe, a Marine spokeswoman, said the Osprey, which has been in development for more than a decade, is undergoing final tests before the Pentagon decides later this year whether to approve full production. The service wants to purchase 360 models by 2014, and analysts doubt Saturday's accident will seriously set back that timetable.

''It is not an experimental aircraft,'' Bakkar-Poe said.

The Marines are counting on the Osprey to become its primary troop-transport aircraft beginning in 2003. It is designed to replace the aging fleet of Vietnam-era CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and has twice the speed, range and payload of the older choppers.

But the aircraft has been dogged by doubts about safety and cost.

Two Ospreys crashed in the early days of the aircraft's development. No one was injured in a crash in 1991 in Delaware that was blamed on wiring problems. Seven people died in a crash in 1992 in Quantico, after an engine caught fire during the transition from traditional flight to helicopter landing.

Safety concerns prompted a Bush administration effort to cancel the Osprey program, but Congress reversed that decision. Boeing and Bell Helicopter Textron, the aircraft's makers, say they have since modified the design to make the Osprey lighter and safer.

At $44 million each, the Osprey is four times as expensive as the helicopters it will replace.

''We're in an arms race with ourselves with the Osprey,'' said retired Army Lt. Col. Piers Wood of the Center for Defense Information, a liberal think tank in Washington. ''We already have the best helicopter fleet in the world, and now we're developing a new concept.''

The Osprey's troubles have not helped the Marine Corps' lagging aviation safety record.

Of the four military branches, the Marines had the highest rate of major aviation accidents in fiscal 1999. It experienced 3.63 mishaps per 100,000 flying hours, including 13 accidents and six deaths.

By comparison, the Navy's major aviation accident rate was 0.77 last year. The Air Force's was 1.41, and the Army's was 1.97.

''Look at the aircraft they (Marines) fly and what they do with them,'' says John Pike, a defense analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. ''They fly closer to the ground, where there is less room for the pilot to get out of trouble.''

Marine pilots fly off the decks of amphibious carriers, where wind and waves make operations more difficult than on land. And they fly helicopters and Harrier jump jets, which are more complex than standard fixed-wing aircraft.

The Harrier, a British-made jet that can take off and land vertically, has had a checkered history. ''It is an enormously difficult airplane,'' says Pike, noting that its mission to fly close combat support puts it at often treacherously low altitudes.

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