MICHELE NORRIS, HOST:
A military aircraft long labeled Snake Bit and Dangerous is being introduced in Afghanistan. Over three decades, the U.S. spent billions of dollars creating the tilt-rotor Osprey.
On a recent trip to Afghanistan, NPR's Graham Smith found that Marines there are beginning to rely on the aircraft, even as critics back home are calling for the program to be slashed.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSPREY)
GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: The Osprey is an odd bird. On the runway, it looks like a stumpy prop plane, except the twin engines seem to be pointed the wrong way, straight up at the sky.
WILSON MCGRAW: I still get excited. Yes, sir.
SMITH: Wilson McGraw, a pilot from Arizona, goes through the pre-flight inspection in the dusty heat at Marine headquarters, Camp Leatherneck.
MCGRAW: Just check all the components before going flying to make sure it's all looking good.
SMITH: We're getting ready for what the pilots call a milk run, a series of hops, moving men, ammunition and supplies between bases. The two big props wind up...
(SOUNDBITE OF PROPELLERS)
SMITH: ...and we take off, straight up like a helicopter but not for long. And we just made the transition from vertical to horizontal, and you can feel the pull of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF OSPREY)
SMITH: After the engines and propellers tilt forward, the Osprey flies like a plane and faster than any helicopter, including the one it replaces, the ubiquitous Vietnam-era CH-46. A ride in one of those meant getting leaked hydraulic fluid all over your bags and clothes. Captain McGraw says you worried when a 46 wasn't leaking. It meant you'd run out of fluid. Not so in the Osprey.
MCGRAW: In this, we can look at a page that tells us when it's starting to deteriorate and we can make a decision before it's an emergency.
SMITH: The Osprey feels different than a helicopter. The milk run's many launches, banking turns and fast descents are enough to make one reporter - me - lose his lunch. In recent years, more and more Marine squadrons are moving to the Osprey or V-22. Reserve units will follow if a new $8 billion contract for 122 more aircraft goes through. Some people thought the Osprey would never make it this far.
RICHARD WHITTLE: The Osprey that is flying to day is not the Osprey that was flying in the 1990s, which was a dangerous aircraft.
SMITH: Richard Whittle. A longtime Pentagon correspondent, he wrote the definitive book on the program.
WHITTLE: In a nutshell, the story of the Osprey is it cost more in time, money and lives than anything else the Marines Corps ever bought. It took 25 years to get it into service. It cost $22 billion and 30 people were killed in crashes during its development.
SMITH: Three major accidents cemented the Osprey as a loser in the public consciousness, the worst, in Arizona in 2000, killed 19 Marines. Cockpit recorders captured the reaction of pilots in another V-22.
(SOUNDBITE OF COCKPIT RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible) Oh, my God. They went down. They crashed. Oh, my God. Wave off (unintelligible) power. Wave off. Shut off power.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wave off. Wave off.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Wave off.
SMITH: After that crash, designers installed a system to warn if the aircraft was descending too fast. They re-engineered hydraulic lines. They tested and retested.
There were other problems. In 2001, two officers were found guilty in a records falsification scheme meant to make the aircraft seem more reliable than it really was. In 2007, the first V-22s deployed to Iraq. Richard Whittle says they'd finally got it right.
WHITTLE: You'll still hear people today constantly saying, the accident-prone Osprey, the unsafe Osprey. That's just not true anymore. The Osprey is, in fact, the safest rotor craft that the Marine Corps flies.
SMITH: Detractors of the program say the safety statistics behind that claim are unreliable, that the planes are still unstable. Nevertheless, the pilots we spoke with in Afghanistan say that when other pilots see them, they get jealous.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL BRIAN MCAVOY: It's a video game. I mean, it's a Ferrari. You know, we joke about it, about it's like getting into a sports car. I can't imagine going back to a helicopter.
SMITH: Lieutenant Colonel Brian McAvoy of Lowville, New York, commands the unit we flew with. McAvoy says today's Ospreys are safer than they used to be and safer than helicopters because they fly higher and faster. Enemies don't notice them until they're out of range.
MCAVOY: Have we been shot at? I can definitely say yes, we've been shot at. And it kind of puckers you up every once in a while when you think, wow, that guy's shooting at me. You know, thank goodness he can't hear me.
SMITH: Like a sports car, though, they cost a lot to keep up. McAvoy says Ospreys require significantly more maintenance time between flights than the old CH-46. And Aviation Week magazine notes that the engines need to be removed and sent back to the U.S. for complete overhaul much more often than helicopter engines. So the Marines invested decades and billions and lives to get the Osprey into combat zones. The question now is whether the U.S. should buy more.
LARRY KORB: No. I think we ought to stop it right now.
SMITH: Larry Korb is a former assistant secretary of Defense, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
KORB: Basically, if you stop it now, you can save at least $10 billion. And given the budget pressures that the Pentagon is under, I think that this would make a great deal of sense now.
SMITH: The Pentagon is looking to cut $450 billion over the next 10 years. Korb and others think this is a good place to start.
And while nobody expects the program to be cut altogether, the Marine Corps' top aviation official said recently, there are proposals to cut the number of Ospreys the Marines could buy in the next few years. Graham Smith, NPR News.