December 12, 2000
The Pentagon today grounded its fleet of V-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft after four Marines were killed in a crash last night. It was the second fatal crash of the Osprey this year.
of the background report.
Streaming Video of the discussion.
RAY SUAREZ: The V-22 Osprey, a combination helicopter and airplane, has suffered two fatal accidents this year. Last night's crash came in a heavily wooded area near Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Among the four Marines killed was the most senior Osprey pilot.
In April, one of the tilt-rotor experimental aircraft crashed in the Arizona desert, killing 19 Marines. This morning, the Marines grounded all the test V-22s, and corps Commandant General James Jones asked the Defense Department to delay a decision on full production. At General Jones' request, Defense Secretary William Cohen agreed to name a panel of experts to review the $40 billion Osprey program.
At a press conference this morning, Lieutenant General Fred McCorkle, the head of Marine Aviation, defended the aircraft that the corps says is essential to its mission to move combat troops rapidly into dangerous situations.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL FRED McCORKLE: I will still tell you that having flown this aircraft and having been around the aircraft a lot of times I don't think that there is anything else out there that rates with it, and whatever is wrong with it, or if there was something wrong with it to cause this accident, we plan on founding out what it was and fixing it.
RAY SUAREZ: The Osprey has been a priority of the Marine Corps since the early 1980s. But the aircraft, which costs about $80 million apiece, has a controversial history. Congress ordered the program to go ahead over the objections of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Last week the Defense Department's top weapons tester, Philip Coyle, issued a report that said the Osprey "...as tested, is not operationally suitable," primarily because of reliability, maintainability, availability, and human factors. Coyle recommended that further research be conducted into the so-called "vortex ring state," a phenomenon that can cause helicopters to sink uncontrollably. This phenomenon was cited as one cause of the April crash.
|Modernizing the force|
RAY SUAREZ: For more, we go to Mark Thompson, national security correspondent
for Time magazine, and David Harvey, U.S. Editor of Defense
Helicopter magazine and a helicopter pilot.
Well, Mark Thompson, what do you make of Commandant Jones' decision to ground the aircraft and put a delay on its continued production?
MARK THOMPSON: The program, as the Marine general made clear today, is in trouble. It's even in more trouble because Secretary of Defense Cohen basically has taken it away from the Marines and is launching a blue ribbon investigation of the program. And whenever your boss does that, that does not make you feel very comfortable.
RAY SUAREZ: What do you think, David Harvey, is that kind of trouble one that's going to really endanger the future of the Osprey?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, it depends what they find. I think there is no argument with the position being taken now, which is to examine this thing, analyze the problems that have taken place and find, and if possible fix it. But I think it's too early in the process to say the aircraft is threatened, terminally threatened, in any way.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, David Harvey, why does the Marine Corps want it so badly?
DAVID S. HARVEY: Well, a number of reasons, but one very obvious one is their current helicopters are getting very old; they date back to the Vietnam era and some of them before that. And so it's a question of are you going to modernize the force and if so how are you going to do it, and the answer is to modernize the assault lift capability. And this is - this is a key part of that strategy.
|No ability to recover|
RAY SUAREZ: Some of the observers, Mark Thompson, have mentioned that the Marine Corps really has no place else to go. Do you think that's a fair statement?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, plainly, they've been betting for a long time on the V-22 being ready to do the job, but plainly, conventional helicopters have been around for a lot longer than tilt-rotor aircraft. And this particular tilt-rotor aircraft has what Marine pilots call "unk-unks" -- unknowns unknowns - the so-called ring state vortex - the vortex ring state that may have played a role in the April crash also could have played a role in this crash. It's like having a bike with training wheels and one of the training wheels falls off, as the pilot described it to me. If you're just learning to ride a bike, you're very likely to tip over, and that may have been what happened here.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you suggesting it may be be too difficult to fly?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, apparently, according to Mr. Coyle's report, the Pentagon chief tester's report, you reach a point in this airplane where once you have lost it there is no ability to recover and that becomes even more important when you're at a relatively low altitude which is where these guys were last night.
RAY SUAREZ: David Harvey, let's talk a little bit more about how this thing stays in the air and how it makes that transition. Is that particularly daunting for a pilot to change from a forward airplane-like movement to more helicopter-like movement while in mid-flight?
DAVID S. HARVEY: Well, it's not because of the magic of software. This aircraft has a digital flight control system, and the way that works is that it watches over the pilot, if you like, and decides whether the pilot is making the correct actions or not. I have a little model here of how this thing works. If you can imagine it flying on level flight, the transition is a very slow, gradual process to bring it into helicopter mode at which point it comes on down. I have flown the simulator for the NV-22 Osprey, and I can tell you it's a piece of cake from that point of view.
RAY SUAREZ: So what do you see as the flaws of the craft, looking at the Coyle Report and what it has to say, what do you think needs to be fixed?
DAVID S. HARVEY: Well, the Coyle report, as I understand it, was concerned with a number of things that already are on their way to being fixed or have been fixed, and they did, as somebody said earlier, relate more to questions of reliability and maintainability that did not address any inherent technological risk in the aircraft or characteristics that may be dangerous in some way.
I think what we have to do now is as the Marines and the DOD has decided to do, go back, look at everything very thoroughly and look at each of the accidents and the incidents on their merit, analyze what's happened, analyze this accident, and then sit back and make a judicious judgment as to what to do next. Rushing ahead I don't think serves any useful purpose at this point.
RAY SUAREZ: Mark Thompson, do you agree with David Harvey's understanding of what's in the Coyle report?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, the report was really harsh. I mean, this airplane can go twice as fast, five times further than what we've currently got. It is a big leap ahead. But it has a lot of problems, which were detailed in the Coyle report. I think what's important to realize is that this is a radical new airplane and it's like jumping a high bar; if you don't knock the bar off, it means you're not trying to jump high enough. We need to give the Pentagon breathing room if that's what they're trying to do is bring on a radical new aircraft. But the question is: How long can we allow them crash into the desert and into the forest before we say, this thing is not really for production, which is what we're on the cusp of right now.
|A rocky start|
RAY SUAREZ: Are there aircraft in current service that have had sort of a rocky start like this one, that have since worked out the bugs and are now a vital part of the fleet?
MARK THOMPSON: Oh, sure. I mean, the Harrier jump jet, which the Marines also fly, had a very high accident rate, as the general said today at the Pentagon -- you know -- we used to have 80 airplanes crash a week and we didn't pay much attention to that in the early days of aviation, but now there is a lot more attention focused on aircrafts, especially ones as radical as this.
RAY SUAREZ: David Harvey, the Coyle report, which was the product review, basically, the test review of this helicopter, said it was operationally effective but not operationally suitable. What does that mean in layman's language?
DAVID S. HARVEY: Well, I think it meant that the required reliability and maintainability factors weren't there. I don't think it was arguing with the fact that this aircraft as a military tool, as a tactical weapon, is in fact very effective and in fact ready to do what it's supposed to do.
RAY SUAREZ: Should its supporters worry a little bit if there is a Bush/Cheney administration coming in since the man who may be vice president is a known opponent of the program?
DAVID S. HARVEY: Well, I would say to that, if the president himself -- President Bush in that case -- is from Texas which is where half the tilt rotor is built - so I think that would act as a counterbalance to that dynamic happening.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Mark Thompson, your view of the political future of this aircraft?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, plainly, Secretary Cheney did try to kill it but he only tried to kill it for the cost reasons. He acknowledged if you could get it to work, it would be a great aircraft. So it's still very expensive and now it's crashing. So I think Secretary Cheney -- Vice President perhaps -- Cheney will give it a lot of scrutiny and indeed it remains up to the Congress what ultimately will happen to it.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, three of the 15 built have crashed. Are they moving into area where there is much, much less room for error now?
MARK THOMPSON: Well, I think in the next several months if there is another crash, God forbid, the program will be almost dead.
RAY SUAREZ: David Harvey, do you agree?
DAVID S. HARVEY: I agree with that sort of feeling, yes. But I would like to return to my previous point, which is each aircraft accident that happens in any branch or realm of aviation is a discrete happening unto itself. I think you have to be very disciplined about looking into the causes of each and every one before trying to bundle them up together in a sort of basket and saying this is a hopeless case.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, if it turns out this one after investigation is found to be pilot error rather than aircraft malfunction, what would that tell you?
DAVID S. HARVEY: It would tell you that the training needs addressing.
RAY SUAREZ: Rather than it being simply too hard to fly?
DAVID S. HARVEY: I don't think it's too hard to fly. Listen, this airplane has been around a long time. An awful lot of test pilots, people with - I'm from Missouri- show-me attitudes to aviation in every way have looked at this from every particular angle. I think by now we would have known if there was an inherent difficulty in the aircraft that somehow makes it real hard to fly. I don't buy that at all.
RAY SUAREZ: David Harvey, Mark Thompson, thank you both.