A Fatal Crash Puts Pentagon on the Spot

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The U.S. armed services, hit with a tidal wave of bad publicity in the past few days over sexual harassment allegations by the Army's top woman officer, must have been thinking things couldn't get much worse. But they did, with the deaths Saturday of 19 Marines in the crash and explosion of an experimental helicopter-airplane hybrid, the MV-22 Osprey, in Arizona. The aircraft, remaining examples of which have been grounded pending an inquiry, is manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing and was in a final test phase before its anticipated introduction into Marine fleets. This is hardly the first time the Osprey has been in the spotlight. At $44 million apiece — some reports say $60 million — the planes were considered a risky investment by many. Some critics cited shaky safety records as reason enough to sideline the project: Before Saturday night, the craft's record included one fatal and one nonfatal crash during test flights. This record, though, was considered unremarkable; more often it was the program's cost that came under attack.

And despite the resurgent reliability concerns, says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson, the Osprey's progress will continue to be stymied by economic worries, not safety fears. "Since it was introduced in 1981, the Osprey has been considered good technology, but at too high a price," says Thompson. "[Bush secretary of defense] Dick Cheney tried repeatedly to kill the program, but support in Congress was too strong to overcome." The debate now, says Thompson, is over whether this revolutionary aircraft — which uses tilt-rotor technology, enabling it to take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a plane — is worth its hefty price tag. But with the unwavering support of congressional delegates from two powerful states (Pennsylvania, where Boeing's helicopter division is based, and Texas, home of Bell Textron) the plug is unlikely to be pulled anytime soon.