Osprey finally arrives in a combat zone, after more repairs

BAGHDAD — The controversial V-22 Osprey has arrived in a combat zone for the first time.

It was an epic trip for the innovative tilt-rotor plane, one that took more than 25 years of development and cost 30 lives and $20 billion. Even the last short hop — from an aircraft carrier into Iraq — went awry, U.S. military officials said Monday.

A malfunction forced one of the 10 Ospreys that were deployed to land in Jordan on Thursday. The Marines flew parts to it from Iraq and repaired it. After it took off again Saturday, the problem recurred, and it had to turn back and land in Jordan a second time, said Maj. Jeff Pool, a U.S. military spokesman in western Iraq. It finally was repaired and arrived at al Asad Air Base in western Iraq late Sunday afternoon.

Maj. Eric Dent, an Osprey spokesman at Marine Corps Headquarters in Washington, declined to identify the problem. "The nature of the malfunction was a minor issue, but our aircrews are top-notch when it comes to safety," he wrote by e-mail. "Rather than continue, the aircrew opted to land at a pre-determined divert location and further investigate the issue."

Now the Osprey is on the world stage, and the burden of proving it's safe, reliable and effective in combat is on the North Carolina-based Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263, nicknamed the Thunder Chickens. The unit's mission will be transporting troops and cargo in western Iraq.

It will perform that mission in ways that no other military transporters have ever done in combat. The Osprey — which costs $110 million each, including development costs — takes off and lands like a helicopter but tilts its engines forward to fly like an airplane.

Its arrival in Iraq is aviation history, said Bob Leder, a spokesman for the Bell-Boeing partnership that builds the Osprey.

"This is a big thing — the introduction of a new type of aircraft into combat, totally different from the way things have been done before," he said.

Leder said the company thinks the Osprey and the squadron will do well, but that the years of criticism and heavy media attention are putting huge pressure on the squadron to perform.

The aircraft's problems have generated a gallery of vocal detractors, who say that not only is it too expensive and too dangerous, but that it performs poorly and has become little more than an extraordinarily expensive bus.

It made the cover of Time magazine last week in a highly critical article that called it "A Flying Shame."

The problem with the flight into Iraq recalled one of the V-22's first big journeys, a transatlantic flight last year to an English air show. One Osprey suffered engine problems and had to made a precautionary landing in Iceland.

The aircraft has had worse moments, though, including three fatal crashes:

_ In 1992, seven crewmembers were killed when a tilt-rotor crashed into the Potomac River.

_ In April 2000, a V-22 with 19 crew and Marine passengers aboard crashed in Arizona, killing all.

_ In December of the same year, a mechanical problem compounded by a software glitch caused a crash in North Carolina that killed the crew of four.

The Osprey's odd configuration means it can take off from tight spots like a helicopter, but travel much farther and faster. The Marines plan to buy 360 Ospreys, and the Navy and Air Force intend to buy about 100 more.

Marines often move by ship, and the Osprey's capabilities were something that Marine Corps leaders decided they needed. They fought hard for the aircraft when it came close to being cancelled.

Vice President Dick Cheney tried killing the program when he was secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush, but Marine lobbying and the fact that suppliers for the aircraft were spread among dozens of congressional districts saved it.

With such a long and shaky history, the pressure isn't just on the Thunder Chickens to make the deployment go smoothly.

Leder said Bell-Boeing had stockpiled about $100 million in spare parts in the past year so that it could be ready for this deployment and any that will follow. It also sent 14 technicians with the Thunder Chickens, a common precaution for major weapon systems when they deploy.

The Marines are keeping tight control on information about the deployment.

For security, the Marines had declined to comment on the unit's movements until all the aircraft were on the ground, and even then they didn't trumpet the event with a news release.

Also, they're barring media access to the unit for several weeks, until it can get settled in, Pool said in an e-mail message.

Former V-22 program spokesman Ward Carroll, a former F-14 pilot, doesn't count himself among the V-22's detractors, but said it's inevitable that more will crash. That's simply the nature of military aircraft, he said.

The wear and tear of deployments could reveal problems with parts that haven't been troublesome before, he said.

The V-22 has been in development for so long, Carroll said, that some of those parts could come from suppliers that have gone out of business.

This summer, a memo circulated around the Marine Corps about several continuing problems. In several cases, mechanics had to strip parts from some V-22s to keep others in the air.

According to the memo, the Ospreys of the generation sent to Iraq were ready to fly less than 80 percent of the time and had full use of their systems 62 percent of the time.

(Price writes for The (Raleigh) News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)