Book review: 'The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey,' by Richard Whittle

By Matthew Continetti
Sunday, April 25, 2010; B06


The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey

By Richard Whittle

Simon & Schuster. 454 pp. $27

Ronald Reagan famously said that the closest thing to immortality in this life is a government program. He might as well have been talking about the V-22 Osprey, the Marines' tilt-rotor aircraft. Since 1983, when the government handed Bell Helicopters its first contract for a transport that could take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane, the Osprey has cost taxpayers $54 billion, killed 30 people, been grounded several times, endured horrible publicity and survived the wrath of Dick Cheney. Yet it's still around. Most recently the Osprey has supported Marines in Haiti and Afghanistan. But it's still dogged by controversy. Early this month, NATO said an Osprey went down in southeastern Afghanistan, killing four people in its first crash in a combat zone. (The cause is under investigation.)

In his new book, Richard Whittle, a veteran Washington correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, shows how the Osprey has survived despite the costs, glitches and deaths. It's a revealing tale.

"The Dream Machine" may tell the Osprey's story, but its main character is Richard Spivey, the Bell Helicopter engineer who convinced the Marines that tilt-rotor aircraft -- vehicles that combine elements of helicopters and planes -- were both feasible and necessary. Spivey is a Washington archetype, the man of science who ends up stalking the corridors of power in the Pentagon and haunting the office towers of Crystal City in a search for government contracts, wealth and power. He's also a visionary who believes the technology behind the Osprey will transform commercial flight by ending air traffic congestion and expanding access to rural communities. Maybe he's right. But it's hard to see consumers lining up to ride an expensive and risky aircraft when the alternative seems safer and cheaper -- even if you have to pay for checked baggage.

Spivey's dream never would have become a reality had it not been for John Lehman, Ronald Reagan's first secretary of the Navy and a former pilot in the Navy Reserve. Dubbed "Young Winston" by his contemporaries, who saw some of Churchill in the Pennsylvania investment banker and cousin of Grace Kelly, Lehman spotted an Osprey prototype at the 1981 Paris Air Show and immediately fell in love.

"I want to bring the Marine Corps into the twenty-first-century on the leading edge of technology, and that leading edge is tilt-rotor," Whittle quotes Lehman as saying at the time. Prophetic words, because the Osprey wouldn't be deployed until 2007. The aircraft became Lehman's pet project, a way to build his bureaucratic empire while addressing a perceived need in defense policy. (The Osprey's advocates believed tilt-rotor aircraft would have prevented the 1980 Desert One fiasco, when President Jimmy Carter's attempt to rescue hostages in Iran ended in disaster.)

Unfortunately for Spivey and Bell Helicopter, every administration must end, and the Republicans who replaced Reagan and Lehman were not as willing to splurge on new weapons. The bean-counters never liked the Osprey. David Chu, the economist in charge of the Pentagon's office of program analysis and evaluation, had argued since 1983 that the Marines would be better off modernizing their helicopter fleet. George H.W. Bush's defense secretary, Dick Cheney, agreed. He tried repeatedly to "zero-out" or kill the Osprey's budget. But the tilt-rotor's advocates found ways to keep the program alive.

This was something the Osprey's friends, from defense contractors to Marine generals to Republican congressmen, had to get used to doing. Whittle's narrative outlines, in painstaking detail, the various challenges the program has faced over the decades: fatal crashes, falsification scandals, financial overruns, redesigns and the nagging feeling that in this case the costs might just outweigh the benefits. The Osprey's tenacity is amazing. You get the sense that the program continued just because it would have been too painful for the interested parties to admit defeat. By the time he got to fly in a V-22 in 2005, Whittle had covered the aircraft's development for 20 years. "Flying in the Osprey was like nothing else," he writes. "Its power and speed and novelty made the ride exhilarating." For $54 billion, I would hope so.

What makes "The Dream Machine" interesting is the light it sheds on Washington's "permanent government," the lobbyists and consultants and bureaucrats and contractors who sometimes seem to live in a different universe from the rest of us. One of the lessons of Whittle's book is that no one misses a chance to swim in the giant pool of money and power that is the nation's capital, where the defense industry is the biggest fish of all.

As long as Marines in combat are happy with the Osprey, we might as well be happy too. Of course, even if the Marines weren't happy, something tells me the dream machine would still find a way to fly.

Matthew Continetti is the associate editor of the Weekly Standard and the author of "The Persecution of Sarah Palin" and "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."

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