Osprey Fleet Grounded After Fatal Crash

Defense Secretary William Cohen will appoint a panel of experts to study the military’s MV-22 Osprey program, a day after the crash of the still-experimental aircraft killed four Marines, the Pentagon said today.

Monday’s crash in North Carolina follows an accident last spring involving an Osprey in Arizona in which 19 Marines died.

The crashes of the tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane, prompted the Marine Corps to ground its eight remaining aircraft. The military has also indefinitely postponed next week’s planned decision on full-scale production of the Osprey, which is being produced by Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron.

Mayday Call

In Monday’s crash, the pilot radioed a mayday to the Marine Corps Air Station at New River around 7:30 p.m., just before the hybrid tilt-rotor plane went down in dense woods in southeastern North Carolina, officials said.

At least one witness saw the crash. “The rotors got real loud, and it disappeared behind a tree,” said Mark Calnan, who lives near the crash site about 10 miles north of Jacksonville. “There was an orange flash, a great big one. Then I heard a pop. It crackled like thunder.”

Rescuers reached the area around 11 p.m., officials said. Marine rescue helicopters from Air Station Cherry Point assisted the military and civilian rescue personnel in the area, said Capt. James Rich.

The Marines were identified as Lt. Col. Keith M. Sweaney, 42, of Richmond, Va.; Maj. Michael Murphy, 38, of Blauvelt, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Avely W. Runnels, 25, of Morven, Ga., and Sgt. Jason A. Buyck, 24, of Sodus, N.Y.

Full Investigation

Pentagon officials said there would be a full review of the aircraft. Defense Department spokesman Ken Bacon said a small Pentagon panel is expected to be convened within a week.

“The secretary wants to have a bunch of experts look at the whole program,” he said.

The panel would likely include retired military experts and others to study “performance, combat capability, safety, maintainability and cost” of the V-22.

Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, head of Marine aviation, said he remains confident in the safety of the Osprey, noting that the Arizona crash had been caused by human error, not mechanical failure. He declined to speculate on the cause of Monday’s accident.

“This program is very, very important to the Marine Corps, to me and I think to the nation, and we’re going to work very hard to find out what happened,” he said at a news conference.

“I don’t think this will be a show-stopper,” he said, when asked if the program could be canceled.

Previous Concerns About V-22

In late November, the Pentagon’s top testing official said in a report the V-22 probably won’t be able to conduct military missions without significant maintenance problems. The report also said the V-22 Osprey has had a worse reliability record than the 36-year-old helicopter it is intended to replace.

The official, Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, warned all V-22s may be susceptible to a problem after the Arizona wreck.

The problem known as “vortex ring state,” can occur when a helicopter, is moving forward slowly, but moving downward too quickly. The helicopters blades lose lift necessary to keep it airborne and revving the blades faster doesn’t solve the problem, though a specific maneuver, given enough altitude, can.

The Coyle report, however, warned that it can be difficult for a pilot to tell when he is putting himself into that position, that is, moving downward too quickly given the forward speed.

It recommended further testing of the phenomenon and that pilots be better warned when such a problem was about to occur.

A Controversial History

There has been no information about what might have cause the North Carolina crash. Pentagon sources said Sweaney, the pilot, was extremely experienced and very qualified. Initial speculation is that he would not have gotten himself into the same type of situation that led to the Arizona crash.

The Marines also grounded the Osprey in late August after a driveshaft coupling failed in one of the crafts based in New River, and another Osprey out of New River made an unscheduled landing in Wilmington on Nov. 30. The pilot landed normally after he radioed the control tower that he was in trouble.

The crash will likely provide ammunition for critics of military spending and purchasing

programs

The Osprey, which is scheduled to replace all of the Marines’ Vietnam-era troop transport helicopters, is still being evaluated by the military. The Marines plan to buy 360 of them for $40 billion.

Some members of Congress have criticized the Osprey program as too expensive and technically flawed.

ABCNEWS’ David Ruppe and Barbara Starr, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.