Your Money: Osprey Unsuitable for Operations

Dec. 14, 2000 -- Sometimes, a widow’s words carry more weight than a general’s. Consider the question of what to do about the V22 Osprey. A fourth V22 crashed this week in North Carolina, killing all four Marines aboard.

Among those who died was the Marine Corps’ most experienced V22 pilot and the man scheduled to take command of the first V22 squadron this coming spring. His family went into seclusion after the crash.

But Stacey Nelson, the widow of an earlier crash victim, told ABCNEWS: “I don’t think it’s ready to be bought in mass production.”

At $80 million apiece, the V22s are a combination Cadillac-Mercedes of a new generation of military aircraft: The hybrid of helicopter and fixed-wing plane for use in combat.

The Marines call it the MV22 because they see it as their premier combat transport in the new century. The crash of a fourth V22 out of 12 production models does not seem to have diminished their appetite for the Osprey.

If the United States can successfully develop the technology of switching from one mode to another in operations, it will lead the world. That’s been the argument of Rep. Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania, the V22’s most vocal supporter in Congress.

‘Program’s In Trouble’

Nearly eight years ago, when an ABCNEWS Your Money report suggested that the V22 was too costly for what it offered as a replacement for conventional helicopters, Weldon responded with a letter of denunciation signed by no fewer than 18 colleagues.

When some critics downplayed the usefulness of an aircraft plagued with technical problems, Weldon pointed to the Japanese. “If we don’t develop it,” he told ABCNEWS, “they will.” Weldon did not return telephone calls for comment on the latest V22 crash.

So far, the V22 has been struggling for acceptance by Pentagon technical and test officials. Just last week, Philip Coyle, the Department of Defense’s Director of Operational Tests and Evaluation, delivered a black eye.

Surveying test results, Coyle declared the V22 unsuitable for operations, citing difficulties with maintenance, communications, reliability and human factors. This was virtually on the eve of a decision on whether to order full production of 300 Ospreys.

With this week’s crash in North Carolina — cutting the number of test vehicles from 12 to 8 —the production decision is on hold.

The Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation, Marine Lt. General Frederick McCorkle, said “We don’t know yet what caused this one.”

Then, McCorkle added: “I can say, yes, the program’s in trouble.”

Victim’s Death in Vain?

Stacey Nelson could have told the general that eight months ago.

That’s when her husband, Staff Sergeant William (Bryan) Nelson, died in the crash of his V22 in Arizona. An instructor and crew chief, Nelson had complained frequently to his wife.

“All along, Bryan had been telling me about technical difficulties, equipment breakdowns, them rushing, the safety issues … just to get these test flights done,” said Nelson from her home in Richmond, Va.

“When Bryan was killed,” she said, “I thought they should just scrap the whole V22, get rid of the whole aircraft.” But scrapping the V22, she decided, was the wrong course. “Then Brian’s death would be in vain.”

Time has healed some of the wounds, and now, says Nelson, she has a new idea:

“I would like them to take this aircraft down [ground it] for as long as it takes; look it over, repair it, make adjustments, and make it right.”

In effect, the current grounding of the fleet is an effort by the Navy to find a way to carry out Stacey Nelson’s wish. Ironically, this week’s crash took place only a few miles from the home she and Bryan Nelson shared near Jacksonville, N.C.

The question is whether the technological advantage the United States might gain from developing the V22 outweighs the continuing loss of life among Marine aviators in search of the perfect aircraft. The cost of the aircraft — at more than $80 million apiece — is a secondary, but still an important factor.