WASHINGTON — Test flights on the V-22 Osprey will resume in April in a make-or-break effort to resolve whether the innovative but controversial aircraft is safe and reliable, the Defense Department said Friday.
In announcing the renewed testing, the Pentagon's acquisition chief expressed his personal doubts about the aircraft and its design. "But the only way to prove the case one way or the other is to put the airplane back into flight test," said Edward "Pete" Aldridge, undersecretary of Defense.
The V-22s have been grounded since December 2000, after two accidents that killed 23 Marines. Investigations into the crashes and a special Pentagon inquiry found numerous flaws in the aircraft that caused production to be trimmed to a minimum while redesign and re-engineering could be done.
However, Aldridge said Friday that he has concerns about the fundamental "tilt-rotor" technology that underlies the V-22 and makes it unique. The V-22s take off and land like a helicopter and fly like a conventional airplane.
Previous reviews of the V-22 program have not called into question that basic design even as they cited improvements that needed to be made in the Osprey's mechanics and computer programs to get it ready for day-to-day use.
The Marine Corps had taken delivery of 20 Ospreys before the grounding and they hoped to buy a total of 360 in a $40-billion program running into 2007. Those plans were put on hold while the redesign was being done.
For the next round of testing, four Ospreys will be flown out of a base in Patuxent River, Marine Corps spokesman Lt. David Nevers said. Those craft will feature improvements in the compartments that house the massive engines and in the software that controls the aircraft. Problems in both areas were cited as causes in the most recent fatal crash in December 2000.
As testing proceeds, existing Ospreys will be retrofitted to incorporate improvements, Nevers said.
Among the other areas to be tested is the V-22's performance at slow speeds, Aldridge said.