By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON – The Marine Corps grounded all eight of its high-tech MV-22 Osprey aircraft today following a fiery crash in North Carolina that killed four Marines – including the service’s most experienced Osprey pilot. The accident raised new doubts about the future of the tilt-rotor plane.
Defense Secretary William Cohen, a supporter of the $40 billion Osprey program, planned to appoint a panel of outside experts to review Osprey performance, cost and safety issues, Cohen spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.
Gen. James L. Jones, the Marine Corps commandant, asked for an indefinite delay in a Navy Department decision on whether to move the Osprey into full-scale production, Bacon said. That decision had been expected this month and the Marines had hoped to assemble their first squadron of Ospreys next year.
The crash Monday night in a forested area near Jacksonville, N.C., was the second fatal Osprey accident this year. Three bodies had been recovered from the burnt wreckage; one had yet to be retrieved today.
An April crash in Arizona killed all 19 Marines aboard and stirred questions among the victims’ families – and in Congress – about the Osprey’s safety. The aircraft were grounded until June, and this fall, after more testing and evaluation, the Marines declared the aircraft to be “operationally suitable.”
The Osprey takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like an airplane. Built by Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron for $43 million apiece, the Osprey is a linchpin of the Marine Corps’ aviation future. It will replace the fleet of CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion troop-transport helicopters.
At a news conference today, Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, the head of Marine Corps aviation, expressed sympathy for the families of the four victims and vowed to find the cause of the accident. He said the Osprey’s pilot, Lt. Col. Keith M. Sweaney, 42, of Richmond, Va., was the most experienced Osprey pilot in the service and was in line to become commander of the first Osprey squadron next year.
“Whatever is wrong with it – or if there was something wrong with it that caused this accident – we plan on finding out what it was and fixing it,” the three-star general said. He said a flight data recorder had been recovered intact, but there was no immediate indication of what caused the accident.
Human error was blamed for the Arizona accident. The investigation board that will study the North Carolina crash will be headed by a general officer – a more senior official than normal – indicating the seriousness of the problem.
“We want to make sure everyone knows that this is not ‘business as usual,’ ” McCorkle told reporters. “This program is very, very important to the Marine Corps, to me and I think to the nation, and we’re going to work very hard to find out what happened.”
McCorkle said he remains confident in the safety of the Osprey.
“I don’t think this will be a show-stopper,” he said, referring to the possibility of the program being canceled. The Marine Corps already has spent $10 billion on the program, which Dick Cheney tried to cancel while he was defense secretary in the Bush administration. Congress insisted on keeping it alive.
McCorkle said the Osprey that crashed Monday went down about seven miles from Marine Corps Air Station New River. Details were sketchy, but air controllers reported the last word from the aircraft was a mayday distress call at 7:27 p.m. The pilot gave no information about the nature of the problem.
“The rotors got real loud, and it disappeared behind a tree,” said Mark Calnan, who lives near the crash site in a southeastern North Carolina forest. “There was an orange flash, a great big one. Then I heard a pop. It crackled like thunder.”
In addition to Sweaney, the victims were identified by Marine Corps headquarters as: Maj. Michael L. Murphy, 38, of Blauvelt, N.Y.; Staff Sgt. Avely W. Runnels, 25, of Morven, Ga.; and Sgt. Jason A. Buyck, 24, of Sodus, N.Y. Sweaney was head of the Osprey test and evaluation program and had recently briefed the Marine Corps and Navy leadership on the aircraft’s performance.
The Osprey program has had a troubled history. There were nine aircraft in the Marines’ inventory before the Monday crash. A prototype crashed in June 1991 while undergoing its first flight in Delaware, and in July 1992 another prototype Osprey crashed near Quantico, Va., killing seven people.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.