Crash May Presage Osprey's Demise

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An MV-22 Osprey

Dick Cheney's first target in a second Bush administration may well be to finish a job he never completed as defense secretary in the first Bush administration: Kill the Marines' controversial MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft program. He got a tragic boost in that quest last night when one of the hybrid planes crashed in the North Carolina woods, killing all four Marines on board. The Pentagon is still trying to perfect — and buy — the Osprey a decade after Cheney vainly tried to scrap it during his tenure as defense secretary. The corps, backed by powerful allies on Capitol Hill, wants to spend $40 billion on 458 of the revolutionary hybrid planes, which take off and land like a helicopter but cruise like an airplane when their rotors tilt forward.

This morning, in the wake of the crash, Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones grounded the Osprey fleet and asked Defense Secretary William Cohen to convene a panel of experts to review the program. The Marines also asked the Pentagon to postpone an imminent decision on whether or not the aircraft is ready for full-scale production.

The time is ripe for Cheney to take action: Last April, an Osprey crashed in Arizona and killed 19 Marines (the corps ultimately blamed the tragedy on its dead pilots). Two weeks ago, Phil Coyle, the Pentagon's top weapons-tester, said the Osprey is "more difficult and costly" to keep flying than the 30-year old helicopters it is designed to replace. In fact, it breaks down twice as often. More critically, it's not ready for military missions: It hasn't been approved for the vigorous maneuvers required in combat and lacks the required gun, and Marines can't rappel from it via ropes as required. It also has problems common to cheap cars if not $87 million aircraft: The doors are hard to open, endangering passengers and crew if they need to evacuate quickly; the heating and cooling system isn't sufficient to keep those on board comfortable; and it lacks any bathroom facilities for its ocean-crossing missions.

Back in North Carolina, Marine officers said a "Mayday!" emergency call — with no further elaboration — was heard from the cockpit moments before the accident. The Osprey was heading back to base after a routine training flight from its base at the Marine Corps Air Station at New River, N.C. Witnesses to the crash heard the Osprey's engines powering up just before impact, which suggests the pilots realized they were in trouble and were trying to take corrective action.

The early word from the Pentagon today is that if this latest crash has the same cause as April's — i.e., the hand-picked pilots inadvertently let the aircraft slip into a deadly situation from which they could not recover — the MV-22 may be in a fatal dive itself.