By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007
The Marine Corps said yesterday it was temporarily grounding its fleet of V-22 Osprey tilt rotors after discovering a glitch in a computer chip that could cause the aircraft to lose control.
The order affects 54 of the helicopter-airplane hybrids -- 46 owned by the Marines and eight belonging to the Air Force -- and could last weeks, Marine Corps officials said. It was an unexpected setback for the program; the military last grounded the fleet in 2000 after two fatal crashes that killed 23 Marines.
While none of the aircraft has been sent into the combat despite more than 20 years in development, the Osprey has regained support in the military in recent years. The Marine Corps expects to declare its version combat-ready this summer, and the Air Force version is expected to reach that point in early 2009.
The latest glitch should not affect those plans, said James Darcy, spokesman for the program.
The aircraft's contractors, Bell Helicopter and Boeing, notified the government of the problem on Tuesday after an onboard diagnostic computer pointed to an issue with a chip in the flight control computers, which control all of the aircraft's moving parts. Testing showed that in below-freezing temperatures, the computers could lose their redundancy features -- a safety net if one of the computers is damaged by enemy fire, according to the Marine Corps. That could cause the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.
"It's unacceptable," Darcy said. "This aircraft has to be able to go anywhere in the world." The Marine Corps wants an aircraft that can operate in temperatures as extreme as 65 degrees below zero, he said.
It is unclear how much it will cost to fix the problem, Darcy said.
"Bell and Boeing will work together to get the issue resolved as quickly as possible so the aircraft can return to flight," said Jack Satterfield, a Boeing spokesman. "We expect to be able to do that quickly."
The military plans to buy 360 of the aircraft for the Marine Corps, 50 for the Air Force and 48 for the Navy. The price per aircraft ranges from about $70 million to $89 million, excluding development costs.
Despite recent progress, including flying across the Atlantic Ocean this summer, the program continues to have its critics. "This plane has been in production for over 25 years, costs more than $100 million each, and is scheduled to go into combat this summer," said Todd Bowers, defense investigator for Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group. "I guess we are seeing the results of the extremely weak testing done on this aircraft, which is disconcerting since it will possibly be carrying troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. If it can't stand a little cold weather how can it handle a war zone?"