The Franken Plane

by ROBERT BRYCE

It’s the Franken plane. No matter how many times the V-22 crashes, no matter how many people it kills, no matter how much it costs, the tiltrotor aircraft known as the Osprey just keeps on sucking down taxpayer dollars. The tab thus far: a staggering $18 billion.

The V-22 mess would be safely flying under the radar if not for three recent events: the March 27 crash of yet another V-22, an early April report by the Government Accountability Office that points out the aircraft’s myriad problems, and the most scandalous bit of all — an emergency spending bill now pending before Congress that provides an additional $230 million for the aircraft at the expense of more pedestrian items like night vision goggles that might help save the lives of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There may be no single weapon in the U.S. military’s arsenal that has a worse record of safety, performance, cost inflation and just plain uselessness than the V-22. And yet the program continues to garner billions of dollars.

The March accident happened at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina. A V-22 was warming its engines when, without warning, the machine jumped several feet into the air and slammed to the ground on its right wing. No one was injured in the accident, which the Marines are blaming on "uncommanded engine acceleration." Sources close to the situation tell me that the $110 million aircraft was a complete loss. So far, neither Bell Helicopter, nor Boeing, the two companies who make the V-22, have bothered to offer a good explanation for the accident.

Thus far, about six dozen copies of the V-22 have been produced. Of that number, five V-22s and one prototype have crashed. Those accidents have killed 26 Marines and four civilians.

The V-22 could easily be replaced by standard helicopters like Sikorsky’s new S-92 model, which costs about one-fourth that of a V-22. But the Marine Corps ­ which has enormous political clout in Congress — loves fancy gadgets like the V-22. In particular, the Marines like horsepower and the speed that comes with it. And the V-22 has 12,300 horsepower ­ nearly four times as much as that of the CH-46, the Vietnam-era helicopter it is supposed to replace. The V-22 also weighs twice as much and uses about three times more fuel than the CH-46. But all of those numbers may be irrelevant. Here’s the most important one: although plants in Texas and Pennsylvania build most of the V-22, the parts for the aircraft come from manufacturers in 43 states.

The GAO, in its typical bloodless language, said that "emergency dual engine failures in the conversion/vertical take-off landing mode below 1,600 feet above the ground are unlikely to be survivable." In plain English, that means that if the V-22 gets into serious trouble, like say, its engines get shot out, anywhere between the ground and 1,600 feet of altitude ­ the zone which just happens to be where helicopters spend much of their time — all of the people on board will be riding home in body bags.

That’s a stunning evaluation particularly given the U.S. military’s stated goals. In January, the U.S. Army’s aviation chief, Paul Bogosian, while discussing the many helicopters that have been lost in Iraq, announced that helicopter survivability "has become a top priority" for the military.

So just how survivable is the V-22? This is where it gets really good. The GAO report flatly states that the V-22, despite more than two decades of funding from the Pentagon still doesn’t have any way to protect itself from bad guys on the ground with guns. The GAO said, that "Survivability recommendations included the need to install and test a defensive weapon."

There you have it: despite billions of dollars in taxpayer investment, Bell and Boeing can’t be bothered with trying to figure out how to install a gun ­ any kind of gun ­ onboard their fancy tiltrotor flying (or rather, crashing) machine. Thus, the aircraft — which must fly slowly and carefully when landing and taking off due to its inherent instability — becomes an easy target for insurgents on the ground. And they don’t have to worry about anybody onboard the V-22 shooting back at them.

Finally, there’s the April 21 story by the AP’s Andrew Taylor, who reports that the Senate Appropriations Committee is planning an emergency spending bill that will provide more funding for the V-22 even though it means cutting funding for items like goggles, and more important reduce the availability of equipment needed "for destroying mines and explosives."

Roadside bombs are the single biggest threat to American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They account for about 60 percent of all combat deaths and about half of all nonfatal injuries to U.S. troops in Iraq. And yet, in order to keep the money flowing to Bell, which will likely go bankrupt if the V-22 program is cancelled, the roadside bomb problem is being ignored.

As scandalous as all of the above sounds, here’s the real scandal: Next year, the Marines are going to deploy a few V-22s to Iraq. That’s when the costs will really add up. And those bills will be paid for with the lives of American soldiers.

ROBERT BRYCE is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate.



 

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