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GAO criticizes testing of Osprey aircraft
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Persistent problems' in testing
Aircraft rolled, plunged to ground
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Congressional investigators Tuesday accused the Marine Corps of omitting key tests of its troubled MV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, warning Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that such cuts "represent widespread and systemic problems" in Pentagon programs.
Two MV-22 crashes killed 23 Marines in 2000 and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, said in a report released Tuesday that some omitted tests could have provided data on a problem implicated in an April crash in which 19 troops died.
After a second accident in December that killed four Marines, the corps put off indefinitely a decision on beginning full-scale production of the hybrid helicopter, built by Boeing Co. and Textron Inc.
The new GAO report cast major doubt on the safety and reliability of the MV-22 "Osprey" and on the rigor of Marine Corps testing of the aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but tilts its rotors to fly like an airplane.
"Our review of the V-22 program ... revealed that the department planned to proceed with a full-rate production decision without knowing whether new technology could meet Marine Corps requirements, whether the design would work as required or whether the design could work within cost, schedule and quality targets," the GAO said in a letter to Rumsfeld.
'Persistent problems' in testing
"In contrast to best commercial practices, our work has shown that numerous weapon system programs suffer from persistent problems associated with late or incomplete testing," wrote GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management Katherine Schinasi.
"These represent widespread and systemic problems within the department that must be addressed," she warned the new defense secretary, who was sworn in last month.
The Pentagon's inspector general is currently investigating allegations of falsified maintenance records in the $40 billion Osprey program after receiving an anonymous letter and tape recording alleging that the commander of the corps' only MV-22 squadron told subordinates to falsify maintenance records on the eight remaining aircraft.
Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said that the GAO's preliminary report had been passed on to a panel of experts named by former Defense Secretary William Cohen in December to conduct a complete review of the MV-22 program.
The Washington Post first reported on the new GAO findings, noting that investigators said tests that could have uncovered added information about a phenomenon known as "vortex ring state" -- which occurred during an April crash in Arizona -- were delayed to meet "program cost and schedule pressures."
Aircraft rolled, plunged to ground
That aircraft lost lift and plunged to the ground during a night exercise, killing all 19 Marines aboard.
Instead of the 103 tests first scheduled on the vortex ring state phenomenon, 49 were slated, and of those, only 33 were actually flown, the GAO said.
The report suggested that not enough was known about the Osprey's design and performance before production started and that the limiting of tests reduced the chance to gain a realistic view of the Osprey's ability for combat, rescue missions or aid flights.
It said the Marine Corps had warnings about troubles in the aircraft's hydraulics system. Military investigators have thus far determined that hydraulics failure was a key factor in the December crash.
The report found that the Osprey's cabin might be too small to carry 24 Marines equipped for combat, saying that 15 to 18 Marines might be the limit.
That could undercut one of the reasons cited by the corps for favoring the Osprey over older helicopters such as the UH-60 Black Hawk, which is designed to carry 11 combat-loaded troops.
-- Rachel Gibson (email@example.com), February 20, 2001