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Associated Press July 23, 2005

Marine Corps excited about future of the Osprey

By Estes Thompson

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION NEW RIVER, N.C. -- Before the power really kicks in, before the funky-looking aircraft with the comically huge propellers heads off to deliver its cargo of battle-ready Marines, it pops off the ground like any other helicopter.

But then the engines start to turn forward, and what just looked like a helicopter is suddenly flying like an airplane - further and faster and with more on board than the chopper it's designed to replace.

"This airplane will totally change the way we do business," said Lt. Gen. Mike Hough, the Corps' chief of aviation.

By the end of 2000, it appeared the MV-22 Osprey - a unique tilt-rotor aircraft - might not get the chance. The program was suspended for 17 months following a pair of crashes that killed 23 Marines.

But the Osprey, once a target of Pentagon budget cutters and critics concerned about its safety, has emerged from exhaustive testing as an aircraft that Marine Corps officials excitedly endorse as safe to fly and eager to fight.

The next step is getting Congress to sign off on a $50.5 billion program the Corps hopes will have the Osprey carrying troops into battle as soon as 2007.

Hough acknowledges it might also take some time to gain confidence among "the grunts" - the Marine infantry troops the Osprey will carry into battle. They're used to the helicopter the Osprey is designed to replace, the Vietnam-era CH-46 Sea Knight.

"It's something new to them," 1st Lt. Paul Tremblay, 27, a platoon commander at nearby Camp Lejeune. But he added there are reasons to embrace the new ride. "It has less vibration. When it transitions to airplane mode, it is incredibly smooth."

There are also sure to be lingering questions among the rank and file about the aircraft's history. After an April 2000 crash in Arizona that killed all 19 Marines aboard, both the victim's families and some in Congress wondered openly if the aircraft was safe.

A second Osprey crashed later that year near Camp Lejeune, killing four Marines, including the Corps' most experienced Osprey pilot. The second tragedy caused the Pentagon to ground the Osprey and delay a decision on whether to begin full-scale production.

An investigation found several Marine officers aided a plan to exaggerate the readiness of the aircraft by doctoring maintenance records. However, the Pentagon concluded that played no role in the two fatal crashes.

The Marine Corps turned evaluation of the aircraft over to a special squadron based in North Carolina that reported to a Navy admiral. Its job, Hough said, was to "to prove to the public that their sons and daughters are safe flying this airplane."

"It was the right thing to do," Hough said. "Stop everything. Step back (and) prove to people who are legitimate critics that this is the right airplane. This has proven to be an exquisite machine."

Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., said the Marine Corps has done so much testing that the Osprey is now the "most thoroughly tested new aircraft in Marine Corps history ... tests show it is actually safer than a conventional helicopter."

The Corps hopes to replace its current fleet of Sea Knights with Ospreys, which now cost $71 million each.

First introduced in 1964, the Sea Knight has a one-way range of less than 100 miles and can't take off with a full load, according to Marine officials. By comparison, the Osprey can fly 350 to 400 miles between refueling, at higher speeds and with a bigger payload than the Sea Knight.

That, Hough said, will win friends among the troops.

"Speed is life," he said. "Response time is key to anything when you're in dire straits."

Col. Glenn Walters, commander of the Marine's Osprey test squadron, said the aircraft's range is as much a weapon as the armed troops it carries.

"If you have the capability to move troops great distances, you pose a problem to the enemy that will have to defend great distances," he said. "That waters down their defense."

The aircraft is quieter than the helicopter it aims to replace, and makes for a harder target because its engines are 50 feet apart at the ends of its wings - the twin-rotor Sea Knight's engines are located together, making them easier to attack, Walters said.

There are other advantages, Marine officials argue. The Osprey can taxi on board amphibious ships that haul Marines from port to port; helicopters have to be moved, Walters said. During testing in desert conditions, the Osprey had few of the problems faced by helicopter pilots in the thick dust clouds they've encountered in Iraq. It takes much less time to maintain an Osprey than a Sea Knight.

Osprey pilots have also figured out the flight condition that led to the second crash in 2000. Called "vortex ring state," it causes the Osprey to lost lift; though it cannot be fixed, pilots can be trained to avoid it, said defense analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org.

"The proof in the pudding is they haven't crashed recently," Pike said.

At top production, contractors Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron can build about 48 Ospreys a year, and officials expect the cost to then drop to $48 million each. Congress has yet to approve building the 360 Ospreys requested by the Corps or the 50 sought by the Air Force for its special operations forces. However, the Marines are already training pilots and ground crews.

"The confidence is very high," Hough said. "We've got fixed-wing pilots who are volunteering to fly this thing."

Copyright 2005, Associated Press