Osprey review panel submits recommendations to Senate committee

Wednesday, May 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Changes to make the V-22 Osprey safe for flight could take as little as a year to put in place, but rigorous testing is needed before the troubled aircraft can begin daily use, says a Pentagon-appointed panel.

``The most important thing we could say is that there's no evidence of any fundamental flaw'' in the V-22's unique helicopter-like design, said Norman Augustine, a member of a panel assigned to review the Osprey program after 23 Marines were killed last year in two fatal crashes.

Serious concerns about the aircraft's safety and design led the panel to recommend the program continue production at a ``minimum sustaining level'' until changes can be made.

The Marines want to build more than 450, but only eight have been built and the few still capable of flying have been grounded since last December.

``This is an aircraft that in terms of reliability and maintainability is not ready for operational use or production,'' Augustine said during his testimony Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Still, he and other panel members stressed that the Osprey was the best aircraft suited for Marine missions.

The Osprey uses what is called a tilt-rotor concept. It has the unique ability to take off like a helicopter, rotate its propellers 90 degrees and fly like an airplane. The Marine Corps hopes to use the Ospreys to replace its aging fleet of helicopters, which are considerably slower and louder.

``This thing is a national asset,'' said panel member James Davis, a retired Air Force general.

Panel chairman John Dailey, a retired Marine general, called the Osprey a ``breakthrough technology that is important to this country and our future.''

Committee members generally agreed, although most expressed concern about the aircraft's safety record and questioned why certain mechanical problems discovered before the crashes were not addressed.

Among the problems cited in the panel's report were a glitch in the aircraft's computer software and a need to redesign the inside the plane's engine casing, where mechanics have found hydraulic problems. The plane also needs more rigorous testing before it can be considered for day-to-day use, the panel said.

Committee Chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said the Osprey represents a unique technology.

``I must question, however, whether the increased performance is worth the additional costs, and apparently the increased risk, to those who must operate these aircraft,'' he said.

Quizzing each panel member on how long it would take before the Osprey could resume full production, Warner received nearly identical responses.

``Optimistically, I think it can be done in the neighborhood of a year. And pessimistically, I think it can be done in perhaps two years,'' said member Eugene Covert, professor emeritus of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who said the Osprey program was operating ``under a significant cloud of doubt,'' repeatedly inquired about tactics military leaders may have used to get the aircraft into use.

``You do not believe that the amount of pressure to get this program to full-scale production was unusual or inappropriate?'' he asked Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine Corps commandant.

Jones said he did not.

``We're certainly anxious to be able to provide the replacement aircraft for our aging aircraft, but I would draw the line that we would either knowingly or intentionally or recklessly accelerate the development of a program _ thereby placing passengers at risk or crews at risk,'' he said.

A separate investigation is being conducted by the Defense Department's inspector general's office, which is looking into allegations that service members were instructed by their superiors to falsify Osprey maintenance records to cover up problems with the aircraft.

Levin called the investigation important because ``only an external review of the allegations about the program can re-establish confidence in the program on the part of the Congress, the public, the military and the families of lost loved ones.''