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Osprey Troubles

January 22, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: We get two perspectives. Philip Coyle was the Defense Department’s top weapons tester as director of its Office of Operational Test and Evaluation during the Clinton administration. James Furman was an army combat helicopter pilot from 1966 to 1986, and is now a lawyer representing the family of the V-22 pilot that crashed last April. Later, I’ll speak to the commandant of the Marine Corps.

James Furman, let me start with you. This latest story about the Osprey, the reports that maintenance records were being faked, how does that fit in with what you already believe about this aircraft and its airworthiness?

MAJOR JAMES FURMAN: Well, I’m concerned about the allegations of maintenance fraud and falsification. I think it is… it questions the integrity of this whole program. I’m also concerned about the investigation of it, of whether it’s going to be objective or not, and whether or not the testing of this aircraft has been objective. The aircraft already has cost the lives of 23 Marines in this past year, and four of the first 12 Marine pilots that were selected on a very competitive basis to be in the program. My client, the family of Major Brooks Gruber, was a highly qualified Marine pilot, very experienced, and he was on a night training mission, a flight of two MV-22s on approach into a landing zone with night-vision goggles when his aircraft suddenly went out of control. And his aircraft went out of control, as Mr. Coyle can probably tell you, due to a problem that was completely unknown to him and apparently the Marine Corps at that time because the manufacturers did not fully test this aircraft or inform the Marine Corps about the problems in the aircraft. The aircraft went out of control and it crashed and regrettably 19 Marine lives were lost.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Philip Coyle, you oversaw the overall testing of the airworthiness of this craft. Is it a particularly hard aircraft to keep air-ready?

PHILIP COYLE: It has been. During the operational tests that we’ve overseen, the aircraft has not achieved its required reliability or maintainability. The V-22 was intended to be cheaper to maintain and easier to maintain than the helicopters it’s to replace. So far it has not been.

RAY SUAREZ: Why is that? Is it because of the particular engineering demands of making an aircraft that both flies like a helicopter and a plane?

PHILIP COYLE: Well, it is a complex aircraft and has lots of mechanical and hydraulic and electronic parts. That’s part of it.

RAY SUAREZ: So, your report on the Osprey concluded what about this plane and its future?

PHILIP COYLE: Our report concluded that the aircraft was effective. By that, we mean it can do things that it’s intended to do, for example, it flies farther and faster than other aircraft that it would replace and can get in and out of landing zones very rapidly. We also said it was not suitable. That’s a term of art in the Department of Defense which means that its reliability, maintainability and safety were not up to standard.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Mr. Furman, what do you need to know about this aircraft that you haven’t been able to find out yet?

MAJOR JAMES FURMAN: Well, unfortunately, the investigation that was conducted on the April crash has not been fully released to the families. There is what’s called a JAG manual or Judge Advocate General’s investigation of the crash and portions of that have been published as they should be. The whole report is intended to be a public document. And the Marine Corps has withheld substantial portions of that report including the final conclusions and recommendations, which I am told from sources within the Marine Corps and Pentagon, question the effectiveness and the suitability of that aircraft. Mr. Coyle just mentioned to you that it was effective and that it could get in and out of landing zones quickly. Well, I seriously question that because now there is a limitation on the aircraft that it cannot descend at a rate greater than 800 feet per minute. If you have a combat aircraft under hostile conditions and you can’t maneuver that aircraft, then it’s neither going to be safe nor survivable. It would be shot down. I was a combat helicopter pilot in Vietnam. And if I had those restrictions placed on me, my aircraft would have been shot down and I would not have made it back and probably many other helicopter pilots over there wouldn’t have made it back.

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of those limitations, Philip Coyle, on the approach and the landing and the landing speed for the Osprey as it’s currently designed.

PHILIP COYLE: Well, we know from the crash last April that if the rate of descent is too fast that the aircraft can enter into what’s called vortex ring state. This is an aerodynamic phenomenon where the rotors can lose lift even with the increase of power.

RAY SUAREZ: So they will be spinning but they won’t hold you up in the air?

PHILIP COYLE: Yes. So that’s something that we didn’t really understand before the April crash. Helicopters all can have this… can all experience this phenomenon, but it appears to be worse with the V-22.

RAY SUAREZ: Have you been able to figure out why?

PHILIP COYLE: The Navy has been doing a series of tests where they have, at high altitude, doing it at high altitude so they’re way above the ground. The Navy has been doing a series of tests to try to determine the boundary, the flight envelope of where this vortex ring state condition can occur.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Mr. Furman, given what you know and what you’ve been telling us about your experience, what does this aircraft need to be able to do that, so far, the engineering would show that it can’t do? Can it make the transition from airplane to helicopter smoothly and safely, in your view?

MAJOR JAMES FURMAN: Well, I think the aircraft is a great concept. You may recall back in the early ’50s, they were talking about flying jeeps. There can be great concepts but they may not translate into practical usefulness. This aircraft is a combination aircraft. It is the first tilt rotor aircraft that’s been put into production. It is supposed to go fast for a long range and carry a big payload. The problem is you can never have an aircraft that will… be an end-all and be-all for everything. And I believe that the Marine Corps needs to look at this very objectively and perhaps even outside the Marine Corps to ensure that there is an objective analysis and make a decision about whether the increased margin of usefulness of this aircraft, which I believe is very narrow, is justified by the very large cost and expenditures of taxpayer dollars and the lives of Marines that are not test pilots but are unit pilots out there flying the aircraft and the crew chiefs and the infantry men that have to get in the back and fly.

RAY SUAREZ: James Furman, Philip Coyle. Thank you both very much.