Wounded Osprey

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A Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey

When the marines stripped Lieut. Colonel Odin Leberman of his command of the corps' lone V-22 Osprey squadron, Leberman admitted that he had told his mechanics to falsify maintenance records to make the troubled aircraft look better. The Osprey, despite 18 years of work and a $12 billion taxpayer investment, needed all the help it could get. Two crashes in the space of eight months had killed 23 Marines, aggravating concerns at the Pentagon about the aircraft's reliability as it weighed going into full-scale production. But now, as the Pentagon begins full-blown probes into both the Osprey and Leberman's conduct, new doubts are being raised about the plane's safety, utility and readiness that go far deeper than the Marines have yet acknowledged.

Some challenges are to be expected when building a revolutionary aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but cruises like an airplane — at twice a chopper's speed. As pilots like to say, military flight manuals are written in blood. The growing question around the Osprey is whether its rotor design has a tendency to push the aircraft into a roll that quickly turns into a fatal plunge. Such dives "can occur at any time and consequences are exceedingly grave," according to an unreleased General Accounting Office report circulating on Capitol Hill. "The V-22 appears to be less forgiving than conventional helicopters."

But even if the plane is safe, there are pressing concerns about the military value of the V-22. While the Marines insist the Osprey is ready for production, it has not been approved for combat maneuvers and lacks its required gun. The winds created by its dual 38-ft. rotors are so strong that landing in a desert kicks up sand "brownouts" that can blind pilots, and rescuing someone from the sea is made extremely difficult. Marines climbing down ropes from Ospreys in combat simulations aboard ships or oil platforms have to hit the deck and stay there until the aircraft departs or risk being blown overboard. Communications gear aboard the Osprey is so ineffective that the plane cannot efficiently contact other aircraft, nor can it land at some airports without escort planes outfitted with better electronics to guide it safely through the skies.

But the Osprey's real bugaboo is the amount of maintenance it requires, which is why Leberman ordered his troops to falsify records. "Maintainers are being told they have to lie on maintenance records to make the numbers look good," a V-22 mechanic said in an anonymous letter to the Pentagon. What is amazing is how bad the numbers are — even after the deception. A recent independent review, apparently incorporating the misleading data, said the V-22s were fully prepared for their missions just 20 percent of the time, well short of the corps' 75 percent requirement. An Osprey crash last April in Arizona, killing 19 Marines, highlights the plane's maintenance woes. The Osprey had spent only 135 hours in the air during the three months the Marines owned it. Yet it needed 600 repairs — one fix for every 15 minutes of flying time. The Osprey is far less ready for action than the Vietnam-era CH-46 chopper it is supposed to replace.

And then there are the nickel-and-dime problems that many in the Pentagon say shouldn't be cropping up in a planned $38 billion program on the verge of production by Bell Helicopter and the Boeing Co. The doors on each $83 million craft are difficult to open, the interiors lack hand grips so that passengers can safely move about the cabin in flight, and the heating and cooling systems can't maintain comfortable cabin temperatures. In the hot confines of the cabin, Pentagon testers noted, Marines will have to drink a lot of water to be ready to fight, which highlights another shortcoming: the V-22 has no toilet facilities.

Despite these concerns, Marine officers say, the Pentagon was well on its way to approving full-scale production. Then a December Osprey crash killed four Marines and, a month later, disclosures about the fudged records put that decision on hold. For now, the Pentagon's 12 Ospreys remain grounded.

It was more than a decade ago that Dick Cheney, who was then running the Pentagon, tried to kill the program because of its high price tag. But the corps and its allies on Capitol Hill waged war against him and won. Now a new battle over the Osprey looms. If Vice President Cheney decides to wage war again, this time he will come far better armed.