Osprey program gets green light
ARLINGTON, Va. — Maybe the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft should be renamed the Phoenix, after the legendary bird that rose from the ashes. Or the Feline, in honor of the its nine lives.
When the high-level Defense Acquisition Board met last week to evaluate the results of the Osprey’s last-chance testing program, the group decided to give its blessing for the Osprey to move forward.
The decision came in the wake of a series of program disasters, in particular the tragic loss of 23 Marines who died in two separate crashes in April and December 2000. The V-22 program has also been plagued by allegations of mismanagement that ended the careers of more than one Marine officer.
In a meeting with reporters Friday, Pentagon procurement chief Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge, who chairs the DAB, said that when he took his office as in 2001 he was amazed at the awful state of the Osprey program.
“When I looked at this airplane, it was clear that we did not have a clue,” he said, listing poor design, inadequate program documentation, and a host of other woes.
Aldridge said he came “pretty close” to canceling the tilt-rotor outright.
Instead, “I preferred to give it one more chance, because if it does work, it would be worth it,” he said.
The Osprey is based on a revolutionary concept that uses swiveling rotors mounted on wings. The rotors can tilt up, allowing the V-22 to take off and land like a helicopter, or rotate forward, so the craft flies with the speed and range of a turboprop.
The Marines want 360 V-22s to replace their aging troop transport helicopters, and the special operations community is interested in fielding at least 50.
But the crashes grounded the Osprey and threw its future into shadow.
Last December, Aldridge also ordered an intensive flight test program that is under way at Patuxent River, Md., for the Marines, and in California for the Air Force, who is handling the special operations version.
The DAB evaluated the results of that test program during its Tuesday meeting, and decided to allow the Osprey to continue along its path towards a production decision.
Meanwhile, Pentagon officials have decided to keep the production line warm, budgeting $1.6 billion so that V-22 makers Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas and the helicopter division of Boeing Co. $1.6 billion can build 11 tilt-rotors in 2004.
Asked if the Osprey has turned the corner, Aldridge replied, “yes.”
“The flight test program has done everything I asked it to do,” Aldridge said. “I’m at the point now where I believe we have demonstrated sufficient confidence for safety and reliability.”
Because testers have demonstrated the V-22’s flight characteristics “sufficiently well that they can proceed with a success-oriented program,” Pentagon officials can “now look to the [V-22’s] future, rather than having this big, unanswered question mark,” Aldridge said.
The tests have even shown that the V-22 has some unexpected talents, Aldridge said, including its ability to scoot out of “hot” combat zones “much faster than helicopters.”
But Aldridge, who retired from his position as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics on Friday, stopped short of proclaiming himself a V-22 “convert.”
“That’s going too far,” he said.