- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

The U.S. Marine Corps grounded all of its new tilt-rotor aircraft yesterday after a fiery crash of the helicopterlike plane that killed four Marines in North Carolina.

The crash, the second this year, is raising new questions about whether the Pentagon will go ahead with full-scale production of the V-22 Osprey troop transport.

Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, head of Marine Corps aviation, told reporters at the Pentagon that investigators had recovered the flight data recorder from the crash site near Jacksonville, N.C.

"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 general said.

The V-22, a "hybrid" that takes off and lands like a helicopter but rotates its wings to fly like an airplane, crashed seven miles from Marine Corps Air Station New River around 7:27 p.m. Monday.

Witnesses said the plane exploded in a remote wooded area, killing all four Marines on board.

"The rotors got real loud, and it disappeared behind a tree," Mark Calnan, who lives near the crash site, located in the southeastern part of the state, told the Associated Press in North Carolina. "There was an orange flash, a great big one. Then I heard a pop. It crackled like thunder."

The pilot, Lt. Col. Keith M. Sweaney, 42, of Richmond, was the Marines' most experienced V-22 pilot. Others who died were Staff Sgt. Avely W. Runnels, 25, of Morven, Ga.; Maj. Michael L. Murphy, 38, of Blauvelt, N.Y.; and Sgt. Jason A. Buyck, 24, of Sodus, N.Y.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James L. Jones asked for a delay in the Navy's decision on whether to enter full production of the V-22, and asked Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to convene a special review panel to look at the V-22 program, including its costs, performance, and safety issues, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters. The panel will be set up soon, he said.

Eight of the Marine versions of V-22s were grounded as result of the crash. The Air Force uses a different model of the aircraft.

The crash was the second time an Osprey went down this year. In April, 19 Marines died when a V-22 crashed in Arizona. That accident was blamed on the pilot descending too fast.

The V-22 is a key airlift tool for the Marines. If production is approved, the plane will be the first new troop transport for the Marines in years and will replace aging CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters, some of which are decades old.

"We want to make sure everyone knows that this is not 'business as usual,' " Gen. 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."

Gen. McCorkle said even though the program is "in trouble," he is confident the safety and accident probes now under way will not cripple the V-22 program, which has an estimated $40 billion cost.

"I don't think this will be a show-stopper," he said of the possibility of canceling the program, on which the Marines already have spent $10 billion.

The V-22 has had problems throughout its development. One prototype crashed in June 1991 in initial flight tests, and another prototype crashed in July 1992 near Quantico, killing seven persons.

The Pentagon was close to making a final production decision on the aircraft, which is made by Bell-Boeing. The contract for 20 V-22s is worth up to $1 billion.

In addition to being used for troop transport, the V-22 will be used by U.S. special operations commandos.

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