The Marines are still shaking with anger and concern over last week's revelation that one of their own apparently ordered maintenance records for the corps' V-22 Osprey aircraft to be falsified to make the plane appear more airworthy than it really is. That, however, may be comparatively good news for the project: An analysis of the anonymous letter making the charge believed by senior Marine officers to be true alongside recent reports on the tilt-rotor program indicates the Osprey program is in worse shape than most Pentagon officials had believed.
The V-22 takes off and lands like a helicopter, but tilts its rotors forward once airborne to fly like a turboprop airplane. That lets it fly much further and faster than traditional helicopters. It is the keystone to the Marines' future, and they have been fighting for the program for years. One opponent was thendefense secretary Dick Cheney, who wanted to kill the V-22 during the first Bush administration because he thought it cost too much. The recent revelations mean that Vice President Cheney and a second Bush administration may seize a second chance to put the troubled $40 billion program out of its misery.
"This type of deception has been going on for over two years," said the letter, from an unidentified V-22 repairman. The writer alleged that Lt. Col. Odin Fred Leberman ordered his mechanics to engage in wholesale fibbing until the Pentagon approved full-scale production of the Marines' prized aircraft. "Maintainers are being told they have to lie on maintenance records to make the numbers look good," said the letter. What is amazing is how bad the numbers are even after the Marines fattened their records with falsehoods.
"What we have been doing is reporting aircrafts that are down, as in they can't fly, as being up, as in full-mission capable," the letter alleges. Given the risk to Marine lives and careers posed by the lies, one could be forgiven for assuming that they helped the corps' only V-22 squadron achieve the Marine requirement that the V-22 be ready to fly 75 percent of the time. Far from it. A recent outside review, apparently incorporating the misleading data, said the V-22s were full prepared for their missions only 20 percent of the time, a number far below that of the Vietnam-era CH-46 chopper it is supposed to replace.
Following the release of that report by the Pentagon's top tester last November, the Marines boasted that an increasing number of V-22s were able to fly. "The Marine Corps wants the airplane to be low maintenance and high reliability, and we're driving the program office to make that happen," Brig. Gen. James F. Amos, a top Marine pilot, said in the wake of the critical report's release. Now those numbers, too, are suspect although Amos's comment shows that the pressure Leberman must have felt to boost the V-22's readiness rate was not imaginary.
While the Marines say the fudged records did not make the V-22s unsafe to fly two have crashed in the past year, killing 23 Marines the aircraft has been plagued with problems. The V-22 that crashed last April in Arizona, killing all 19 Marines aboard, makes that all too clear: That craft had spent only 135 hours in the air since the Marines took delivery of it three months earlier. Yet it had required 600 repairs while the Marines had it one fix for every 15 minutes it was flying.