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The Philadelphia Inquirer September 29, 2005

Pentagon gives OK to Osprey

Full production of the once-troubled tilt-rotor aircraft could add 500 jobs at Boeing's plant in Delco.

By Suzette Parmley

In a move that could mean hundreds of new jobs at Boeing's Ridley Township facility, a Pentagon panel recommended yesterday full production of the V-22 Osprey aircraft.

The ruling by the Defense Acquisition Board to proceed with the nearly $50 billion program means Textron Inc. and Boeing Co. will build at least 458 V-22s for the U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy.

Yesterday's low-key announcement by the Defense Department was the final hurdle for a military aircraft that was canceled by the first Bush administration, rescued by Congress, and nearly halted following crashes that killed 23 Marines in 2000. The ensuing investigation, reengineering and testing ultimately satisfied the military that it could count on the V-22.

Boeing spokesman Jack Satterfield said moving to full production of the Osprey - a fixed-wing plane with rotors that tilt so the aircraft can take off and land like a helicopter - could mean as many as 500 new jobs at the Delaware County plant over the next five years.

The Ridley facility currently produces 11 fuselages a year, and Textron's Bell Helicopter plant in Amarillo, Texas, attaches the wings and tail to the body and installs the engine. Each aircraft costs $83 million to $110 million, depending on who is doing the counting.

Satterfield said the ramp-up authorized by the Pentagon called for Boeing to increase production to 16 aircraft in fiscal 2007 and 24 in fiscal 2008. At the program's peak in 2012, Boeing and Bell Helicopter would produce 48 Ospreys.

"We will be adding production employees to the line because we're going from one shift to two or three shifts of production," Satterfield said. "With the increased production rate, we expect to increase the number of employees by a couple hundred to meet the demand."

For the last five years, the fate of the aircraft hung in the balance.

A series of calamities during the testing phase in 2000 nearly doomed the rotorcraft. A crash in April killed 19 Marines in Arizona, and another in December killed four Marines in North Carolina. The Pentagon immediately grounded the Osprey, and then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen called for a reevaluation of the program. Flight testing of the aircraft was suspended from December 2000 until May 2002, while the review was conducted and safety improvements were made. Production was also capped at a “minimum sustaining” level of 11 per year.

"There was some question whether the Osprey had engineering or physics problems," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense policy think tank in Alexandria, Va. "People were saying it was just trying to do things that physically couldn't be done, and for a while, it looked more dangerous to its crew than to the enemy."

By 2001, things looked just as grim for the Ridley plant.

"We were on our heels," said John DeFrancesco, president of Local 1069, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), which represents 1,350 of the 4,500 employees at the Ridley plant. "We did not know what was going to happen at this site and did not know if we would ever build the Osprey."

Both Bell and Boeing implemented changes in a variety of systems to improve the aircraft's operational capability, including improved cockpit displays to eliminate concerns about vortex ring state - a condition that can cause the aircraft to stall during a high rate of descent. Vortex ring state was blamed for the April 2000 crash.

Since flight testing resumed in May 2002, Satterfield said Boeing had delivered more than two dozen V-22 aircraft to the Marine Corps.

He said the company had expected a favorable decision yesterday, given the series of endorsements the aircraft had garnered over recent months.

From March to June, an operational test and evaluation by the Department of Defense was conducted that deemed the Osprey "operationally suitable and operationally capable." Last month, it received the endorsement of Kenneth Krieg, the undersecretary for Acquisition Technology and Logistics, which oversees the Defense Acquisition Board.

"What this means is that after 20 years of test and development, the V-22 is finally ready to go into high-rate production," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the nonprofit Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan research group that focuses on national security and federal policy concerning science and technology. "Once it's in a high rate of production, the price will come down and the markets for the plane will expand, because foreign buyers and domestic users will see the full potential of the aircraft."

The V-22 is part of what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls "military transformation" - using new technology and new ways of waging war. The V-22 combines the speed and range of an airplane and the vertical agility of a helicopter.

The Ridley facility is also where the CH-47 Chinook, primarily a U.S. Army transport helicopter, is manufactured. With the ramp-up of the Osprey, coupled with the increased production rate for the CH-47 Chinook, Satterfield said the plant could hire from 250 to 500 workers over the latter half of the decade.

For U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.), who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee that oversees the V-22 program, yesterday's decision was vindication. Weldon, whose Seventh District includes the Ridley plant, defended the Osprey even when it was suspended by Cheney, and he was widely criticized for it.

"Today's approval is monumental in that it is one of very few weapons systems to be brought back from near extinction," Weldon said in a statement. "This is total vindication from all of the critics who had taken cheap shots at the V-22 project over the years."

To rally the workers, the Marines did a flyby on Tuesday over the Ridley plant. DeFrancesco said several dozen plant workers watched and cheered as the aircraft did three full circles around the building.

"It was a way to say, 'This is what we've built,' " he said. "All the workers here have worked years and long hours to perfect it. We've very proud."


Copyright 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer