WASHINGTON — The controversial Super Stallion military helicopter, involved in crashes that have killed at least 20 Marines, is now considered safe and should not be grounded, the naval inspector general said Thursday.
Rear Adm. J. H. Fetterman, the inspector general, testified before a hearing of a House Arms Services procurement subcommittee in response to charges by Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), a panel member. Badham said two weeks ago that the entire fleet of 92 helicopters should be grounded until safety problems are corrected.
Fetterman acknowledged that the powerful three-engine, heavy-lift helicopter had been "a problem" but said that--because of modifications in the operation of the aircraft and further planned testing--"no general grounding is required."
The Super Stallion had been grounded temporarily last month for what the Marine Corps and Navy said were transmission problems.
The aircraft has been plagued by accidents. Badham said that Navy officials knew as early as 1976 that the helicopter may have been designed with a structural problem but did nothing to fix it. He said the aircraft had been involved in at least 39 emergency landings and accidents, including one January desert crash near the Salton Sea in Imperial County that killed five crew members.
Fetterman said Thursday for the first time publicly that the Salton Sea crash was caused not by mechanical problems but by "pilot error . . . . The pilot got disoriented and literally flew into the ground."
Calls Response 'Backward'
Badham said after the hearing that the Navy's response to the helicopters' problems has been "backward . . . . They flew them first and then came and told us about them.
"The Navy has told Congress, has told the world that it (the helicopter) is safe," Badham said. "The first steps that need to be taken have been performed satisfactorily, but I'm not going to be satisfied until testing has been completed and the total fixes needed have been done."
The Super Stallion is capable of carrying 55 combat-equipped troops or lifting 16 tons of equipment. Fetterman said the major source of problems for the craft can be linked to compounded vibrations resulting from the helicopter design. As Badham explained it, those vibrations sometimes caused the "over-stress" of the helicopter's critical moving parts and a visible twisting of the tail section.
Adopts New Procedure
In September, the Navy adopted a new procedure that requires the pilot to jettison certain loads if vibration problems are detected, Fetterman said. That has been done twice, he said, "without any accidents."
Fetterman said he made several other recommendations for the helicopters this week that have been accepted by the Navy. These include an accelerated testing program, prohibition of the aircraft's flying over populated areas and restrictions on Super Stallions that carry passengers other than crew. Until the testing program is completed, Fetterman said, there should be no new contracts for the aircraft.
Badham said he and naval officials are still negotiating about how soon the testing program will start, but he said he is "anxious to get it going" and believes that it should take no longer than a year.