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US Marines say V-22 Osprey will fly well in desert dust

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  • US Marines say V-22 Osprey will fly well in desert dust

    By Rebecca Christie
    Last Update: 4:09 PM ET Jan 30, 2007

    WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- The U.S. Marines say their new V-22 Osprey aircraft can fly safely across dusty battlefields, despite a Defense Department tester's report that raises concerns about performance in the desert.

    The Marines and the U.S. Air Force are buying the Osprey in bulk to replace and upgrade aging troop transport helicopters. The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off vertically but can fly like an airplane, allowing it to fly farther and faster than a traditional helicopter. Boeing Co. (BA) and Textron Inc.'s (TXT) Bell Helicopter unit are the lead contractors on the $50 billion program.

    Ospreys are on track to deploy later this year, possibly to join Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan. But recent testing prompted concern about how the new aircraft will adjust to desert conditions.

    In a report released this month, the office of the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation raised concerns about maintenance woes during an Air Force training exercise at Kirtland Air Force Base, near Albuquerque, N.M. Parts failed, supplies were limited and there were frequent false alarm rates.

    Since the Air Force CV-22 and the Marine Corps MV-22 use the same engines and most of the same hardware, the testers asked if New Mexico dust might have been the culprit. "Some of the degradation in reliability may be attributable to the extended exposure to the desert operating environment that the Air Force used," the test report said.

    Desert wear and tear is a big concern in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of pounds of sand fill every nook and cranny of aircraft deployed there, and rotor blades create big dust clouds every time a helicopter takes off or lands.
    But test pilots say the Osprey handles better than its predecessors. In 2004 testing at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, the V-22 was relatively easy to maneuver in tricky dust cloud landings, Marine Corps Maj. Scott Trail told Dow Jones Newswires.

    "It's very stable when you come in to land," Trail said. "This aircraft has a hover autopilot that works above 50 feet. We were able to land it by just adjusting power and allowing the aircraft to fly itself."

    Bob Leder, a spokesman for the Bell-Boeing joint venture, said the test difficulties were not significant. The companies referred detailed questions to the Pentagon.

    Core aircraft issues weren't the cause of the Air Force's testing difficulties, said James Darcy, spokesman for the Navy's V-22 program office. Instead, the Air Force struggled with an inefficient supply system and inexperienced maintenance planning.

    "The CV-22 maintenance community has not had as much opportunity to work through the challenges of learning a new aircraft as the MV-22 community. Both the maintenance and the supply issues are to be expected as the community grows and gains experience," Darcy said.

    The Air Force Ospreys, designed for a range of special operations missions, aren't scheduled to be ready for combat until 2009. The Marines are farther along, with combat capability expected this summer.

    The Osprey's progress remains a controversial topic, in part because of its troubled early development. The program was grounded for two years after a pair of deadly 2000 crashes. Also, this month, the Washington-based Straus Military Reform Project published a new analysis that says the program has "fundamental flaws that may cost even more lives."

    But the Marines have not wavered in their commitment to the program. Trail, the Marine Corps test pilot, said he would feel safer in a V-22 than the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter he flew to Afghanistan in 2001.

    That journey was an eight-hour trek from ship to shore, including a hazardous refueling stop in Pakistan. In a similar situation, he said, a V-22 could fly straight to Afghanistan with a full load of Marines, without having to refuel in range of ground attacks.

    "I would much prefer that to having my 46," Trail said.
    -Contact: 201-938-5400 End of Story