Ray Suarez looks at the latest developments in the story of the tilt-rotor Osprey military aircraft.
RAY SUAREZ: For the past two decades, the Marine Corps has staked much of its future on this controversial aircraft. It's the V-22 Osprey, designed to replace an aging helicopter fleet and give the Marines even more mobility. Employing what's known as tilt- rotor technology, the Osprey takes-off and lands like a helicopter, but cruises at the speed of a plane. In the field, the idea is to drop in and out of hostile situations in a hurry. Much of the controversy over the Osprey has centered on its $40 billion price tag. In the 1980s, then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney tried but failed to kill it.
With support in Congress, the Osprey survived multiple budget battles, but not its first test flight in 1991. The tilt-rotor would crash three more times, including twice last year. In all, 30 Marines died. After the most recent crash in December, the Marines grounded all test V-22s until further notice. And in one of his last acts in office, Secretary of Defense William Cohen established a blue ribbon panel of experts to assess the v-22's safety and effectiveness. Today the blue ribbon panel, made up of two former generals, the former President of Lockheed-Martin and an aerodynamics professor from MIT held its first open meeting. Most of the witnesses today were critical of the Osprey, but the hearing began with advocates. Former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney defended the v-22's technology and said the plane was vital to the Marines.
FRANK GAFFNEY: We owe it to the men who have lost their lives tragically, due it appears, to factors that were not attributable to the Osprey's tilt-rotor design, to ensure that they have not died in vain. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to recommend continued development and production of the V-22.
RAY SUAREZ: Former helicopter pilot Frank Jensen said the V-22's mishaps were part of the aircraft's growing pains.
FRANK JENSEN: I am convinced that the tilt- rotor concept represents a crucial advancement in aviation and is of vital importance. Not only for the U.S. military, but for the entire nation. Aviation history has shown that every significant advancement has had disappointing and sometimes tragic accidents and failures.
RAY SUAREZ: Attorney Brian Alexander blamed the Marines and the V-22 manufacturers for ignoring a problem known as asymmetrical vortex ring state, an aerodynamic problem implicated in a crash last April.
BRIAN ALEXANDER: What would we like the panel on to do? We would like to you to determine first and foremost - and this deals with the April crash primarily -- why a problem as fundamentally simple as set ling a vortex ring state was not fully tested by Bell Boeing before the Osprey came into the hands of the Marine corps for operation. I want to know how they could have missed something that's been known in roto craft technology for decade -- how they could not have applied that knowledge to the unique characteristics of the Osprey. It is not ready for prime time. Why are we rushing it? Slow down, make it right. If I know anything, it is that our Marine Corps deserves that.
RAY SUAREZ: Connie Gruber, whose husband Brooke died in that April crash, said the Marine Corps was wrong to blame the tragedy on human error.
CONNIE GUBER: I ask that you say no to putting programs and products before people. Say no to unnecessarily putting America's greatest patriots in harms' way. Say no to then blaming those brave souls by wrongly accusing them of crimes they did not commit and have no way of defending themselves against.
RAY SUAREZ: The panel will report its findings to the Pentagon next month.