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Marine Tilt-rotor Aircraft Set for Deployment Despite Problems

July 18, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent: The Marines have been putting in long hours, flying from early afternoon until late at night, because they’re getting ready to take a new aircraft to war in Iraq. It’s called the V-22, the Osprey.

With temperatures hovering in the 100s, at a remote location in the Arizona desert, the conditions were miserable, similar to what they’ll find when they get to the Iraqi desert.

LT. COL. BUDDY BIANCA, Osprey Pilot: We’re flying multiple aircraft every day, complex missions. We’re operating the aircraft in a harsh environment, the dust, the heat, and we’re doing it every day.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lt. Col. Buddy Bianca has spent the last eight years of his life training and flying the Osprey, and he loves it.

LT. COL. BUDDY BIANCA: I think that it’s not evolution; it’s revolution. It’s different.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Osprey is different, all right. It can take off and land like a helicopter. But when the engines are in a horizontal position, it can fly like a conventional airplane. General James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, made the decision to send Osprey to Iraq.

GEN. JAMES CONWAY, Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps: It’s not the next-generation aircraft. It is a technological leap. It is pushing the envelope of science to be able to do with this airplane what no other airplane or no other nation has developed the capability to do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Marines say the Osprey can fly higher, faster and further than the Vietnam-era conventional helicopters it’s replacing, and they say it will save lives.

GEN. JAMES CONWAY: If you look at the profile of the aircraft that we have lost, it’s almost exclusively from ground fire. But if you compare that against the profile that the Osprey offers, the ability to get above small-arms fire or RPG rockets that in some cases have knocked down aircraft, all of those things point towards greater levels of survivability and just much more effectiveness on the battlefield.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Osprey is the most expensive vertical lift system in the history of the Pentagon. In 25 years of development, it’s cost $20 billion. As far back as the 1980s, questions about the price tag were being raised. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney told the NewsHour in 1989 that he wanted to kill the program.

DICK CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: It’s an expensive system. And over the course of the next five years, if we go with the V-22 Osprey, I’d have to spend $10 billion.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Manufacturers Bell Helicopter and Boeing Aerospace mounted a huge public relations campaign.

COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: This is the lift America needs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the end, Cheney’s decision didn’t stick. Congress reinstated funding, so today the Osprey is in full-blown production at a cost of $110 million a piece.

But it’s not just cost that has disturbed some people. Even the Pentagon’s own former chief weapons tester, Philip Coyle, now a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information, says the Osprey won’t stand up to insurgent ground fire.

PHILIP COYLE, Former Pentagon Chief Weapons Tester: It’s not armored. It’s not a tank. It’s an aircraft. And so you have a very complex piece of equipment where bullets or other types of projectiles can strike that cannot practically be protected.

Osprey's safety record

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Osprey's critics also point to the aircraft's troubled safety record. In 1991, a test pilot survived this crash of a prototype, but over the years there have been three other crashes that killed 26 Marines and four civilians.

After a crash in the year 2000, the Corps went back to the drawing board, redesigned much of the aircraft, and conducted extensive flight tests. But Coyle says not all the bugs have been worked out and the Marines know it.

PHILIP COYLE: It's turned out to be a relatively unreliable aircraft. The Osprey has had any number of different kinds of mechanical failures over its history, electrical failures, electronic failures, hydraulic failures. And so even in the most recent testing, its reliability and availability has not been up to the standards that the Marines require.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: General Conway bristles at the suggestions that he is sending an unsafe aircraft into a war zone.

Do you think this aircraft is reliable?

GEN. JAMES CONWAY: Well, I do, or we wouldn't be deploying it and putting Marines in the back of it, OK? I've flown in the aircraft now three times. I am really impressed with its characteristics and what it's going to bring to the battlefield. And I will assure you that, if we did not feel that way, we would not be putting America's great, young warriors into the back of the aircraft.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But a Marine Corps internal document obtained by the NewsHour dated June 7th shows the Osprey is still having serious maintenance problems, just a few months away from deployment to Iraq. Identified were: fuel system leaks, and nose landing gear failures. Either one of those could cause an accident.

Also cited were: failures with the flight control computer and the de-icing system. Its "problems are difficult to troubleshoot" or "identify." And air conditioning breakdowns were said to "negatively impact" the Osprey's "ability to fly in hot climates." Because of these and other problems, for the past nine months, the newest aircraft had been fully mission-capable only 62 percent of the time.

When asked for an explanation, the Marines said these problems were "old news," that "mitigation and improvement plans" are "in place for all these issues," and that Osprey "is on schedule to deploy."

Still, just a few weeks ago, when the NewsHour was taping training in Yuma, there were two problems on two different Ospreys in one day. The first was when Lieutenant Colonel Bianca got a "fail" light in the cockpit and had to switch to another Osprey. The second was in the desert, where the NewsHour went to take a picture of several Ospreys landing. When they didn't show up, we were told one had an electrical issue.

But Osprey maintenance crews argue it's not any more challenging than any other aircraft.

SGT. DAVID SALGADO, Electronics Technician: I think the maintenance is just where it should be. It's a newer aircraft, so it has its growing pains along the way, and we're working through them quite fast.

'Vortex ring state'

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Former weapons tester Coyle disagrees.

PHILIP COYLE: Hardly a week goes by -- maybe it's two or three weeks -- before I read in one of the defense trade journals or in a newspaper article or some place that there's been another Osprey failure.

GEN. JAMES CONWAY: Those things happen; we readily admit them. They reach a level of public visibility that we're not ashamed of, because it's a natural sequence of events when you're building a new airplane and putting it into operation.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Osprey critics also say the aircraft still has design flaws. Austin, Texas, attorney Jim Furman, an experienced Vietnam war combat helicopter pilot, represented the families of Marines killed in an Osprey crash. The case was settled out of court.

He says, when the Osprey flies in helicopter mode, it is susceptible to something called "vortex ring state." That's when air that a helicopter's rotors push down re-circulates up, causing the aircraft to lose lift and crash.

JIM FURMAN, Former Army Helicopter Pilot: With the Osprey, because you have two engines that are side by side, it reacts to vortex ring state in a very unusual way. It results in a very rapid roll that's unrecoverable if you're at a low altitude. And that was never resolved. It's an aerodynamic issue with that aircraft that really cannot be designed out.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Osprey flight manuals tell pilots to avoid vortex ring state by not descending too quickly. But Furman says that puts pilots in a dilemma when confronted with insurgent ground fire: Either fly by the book and take enemy fire, or get out of harm's way fast and risk vortex ring state.

JIM FURMAN: When you're getting shot at, you're going to do anything that you can do to try to save yourself and the people on board. And if you have some flight restrictions, that's going to be very restricting on your survival.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How concerned are you about vortex ring state?

GEN. JAMES CONWAY: Not at all. That was something that I think we had to discover and understand the impacts of. We've learned how to deal with it, and it's not something that we're concerned about.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Lieutenant Colonel Paul Rock is the commander of the first Osprey Squadron that will be deployed to Iraq. He says he and his pilots are trained to avoid vortex ring state.

LT. COL. PAUL ROCK, Commander, Osprey Squadron: Vortex ring state, as an aerodynamic phenomenon, only occurs at very low forward air speeds and very high rates of descent. The last thing that I would do if I were being engaged is get slower and drop.

OSPREY TRAINER: So why fly in formation? Can anyone give me an idea of why we fly in formation?

OSPREY PILOTS: Mutual support.

OSPREY TRAINER: Mutual support.

Working out the bugs

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rock's pilots have undergone special training in flight tactics.

Do you think all the bugs have been worked out?

CAPT. DREW NORRIS, Osprey Pilot: I feel completely comfortable flying the aircraft. And I'll tell you, my wife wouldn't let me if she didn't, too, so I'm very comfortable.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Furman says confidence is not enough to overcome another potentially dangerous problem: The Osprey cannot auto-rotate. When a helicopter's engines fail, pilots use the lift created by the spinning rotors to auto-rotate and land safely.

JIM FURMAN: One of the requirements for any helicopter is that it be able to auto-rotate. Auto-rotation to a helicopter pilot is like an ejection seat. And so it would be like manufacturing fighter jets and not putting ejection seats in them, to buy the Osprey without auto-rotational capability.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Osprey pilot Captain Mike Parrott says he's trained to handle that kind of crisis.

CAPT. MIKE PARROTT, Osprey Pilot: If we have any type of dual-engine failure as an airplane, it still handles in an amazing way. But if we're down low to the ground, I'm very confident. We've practiced it in the simulator over and over and over, and it's something that we've trained to and learned to do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Conway says critics like Furman and Coyle should give the aircraft a chance.

GEN. JAMES CONWAY: If you look at the history of any new aircraft -- any aircraft, period -- aircraft do crash. And it's a fact of life. My concern is that there is a body of critics out there that will once again insist they be heard from when the next Osprey crashes to say, "I told you so." I just want to see Osprey given the opportunity to prove itself.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The first Ospreys will go to Iraq in September.

JIM LEHRER: Pilot Marine Lieutenant Colonel Buddy Bianca and former Army pilot Jim Furman will be taking questions about the Osprey at the Online NewsHour at PBS.org.