Is It Too Early to Fly the Osprey? The Marines are flying a new aircraft in Iraq. The V-22 Osprey combines qualities of a plane and a helicopter. Supporters say it's ideal for combat zones. Critics, pointing to two fatal crashes, say it's too soon to use the aircraft in combat.
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Is It Too Early to Fly the Osprey?

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Is It Too Early to Fly the Osprey?

Is It Too Early to Fly the Osprey?

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The Marines have deployed the first combat squadron of V-22 Osprey' to Iraq. The Osprey is what you might call a rare bird. It takes off vertically like helicopter and it flies like an airplane. Supporters say it will enable Marines to get into hot spots faster and more safely than before but there have been problems. The Osprey's development was marked by delays, rising costs and two fatal crashes. Critics say the crafts is still unproven.

Joining us is Nathan Hodge, a reporter for "Jane's Defence Weekly."

Welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHAN HODGE (Staff Writer, "Jane's Defence Weekly"): Thanks. Good to be here.

HANSEN: Paint us a picture, if you will. What does the Osprey looked like?

Mr. HODGE: The Osprey is a really unique looking bird just like you said. The wings basically point upwards when you're lifting off and then they lock forward when you're flying horizontally. So, you know, it can look like a plane, it can look like a helicopter. It kind of looks like, sort of a strange, funny tandem rotor helicopter when it takes off and it looks like a normal twin engineer turbo-prop when it's line forward.

HANSEN: So, what is the Osprey able to do that really makes it unique?

Mr. HODGE: Really, it gives you the speed and the range of a fixed-wing aircraft. It can take you farther and faster than a helicopter can. And this is really important in a place like Anbar province where the Marines are going to be operating with the aircraft.

Take for instance (unintelligible) forward operating base that may not necessarily have an - finished airstrip where you can land. Or say you're doing some kind of what you call an air assault operation, you need to ferry a group of people out somewhere in the middle of the desert where there may be no place to land a fixed-wing aircraft.

That's a place where the Osprey could operate and that's a capability that the Marines really don't have. That you can take a helicopter and you can pretty much land it anywhere you want, but you can necessarily go the distance without refueling. And that's really what the Osprey provides the Marine Corps.

HANSEN: So what were some of the problems of the Osprey?

Mr. HODGE: This is a really complicated aircraft. Tilt-rotor technology is something that's relatively new. You pointed out that there were two fatal crashes in 2000. One of them was attributed to something called the vortex - ring state. You lose vertical lift when you sink into your rotor downwash.

Now vortex ring state is something that all helicopters are susceptible to. It can cause a catastrophic loss of altitude. And what they really needed to do is figure out, well, how do you recover from a vortex ring state in a V-22? What are the maneuvers that are acceptable for it?

HANSEN: You know, there's a saying among pilots, military flight manuals are written in blood. How unusual is the Osprey's track record when you compare it to others?

Mr. HODGE: Well, that's an important point to point out that very often, test aircrafts are hazardous because you're taking them up in the air for the first time, but they've still continued to have glitches. Earlier this year, the entire fleet was grounded because of a faulty computer chip in the flight control computer, problems of with the hydraulic lines that have also caused questions about how safe and how reliable the aircraft is.

Now, is it the widow maker that some of the critics say? No, I don't think so. The Marines wouldn't send it downrange if they didn't have some degree or high degree of confidence that the aircraft really works well. But it's also interesting to see how they downplayed some of the expectations about how the aircraft will perform.

I think it was earlier this year, the Marine Corps commandant, General James Conway said that he thought the Osprey would, quote, unquote, "revolutionized helicopter operations." But on the other hand, he also said there is going to be a crash. That's what airplanes do over time, he said.

Now statistically, that's correct. But I think it's a very interesting way of kind of downplaying expectations about the Osprey in advance of its first combat deployment.

HANSEN: Nathan Hodge is a reporter for Jane's Defence Weekly. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. HODGE: Thank you.

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