- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

The Marine Corps grounded all MV-22 Osprey aircraft today following a crash in North Carolina that killed four Marines and raised new doubts about the future of the tilt-rotor plane.
The Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James L. Jones, asked Defense Secretary William Cohen to convene a panel of experts to review the troubled $40 billion program, said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Dave Andersen.
"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," said Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, head of Marine aviation. He spoke at a Pentagon news conference in which he expressed sympathy for the families of the four crash victims.
Lt. Gen. McCorkle said he remains confident in the safety of the Osprey, but he declined to speculate on the accident's cause.
"I don't think this will be a show-stopper," he said, referring to the possibility of the program being canceled.
The Osprey crash last night, in a forested area near Jacksonville, N.C., killed all four Marines aboard. It was the second fatal Osprey accident this year. In April an Osprey crashed while attempting to land at an airport in Arizona, killing all 19 Marines aboard. Human error was blamed for that accident.
"They did a pretty valiant effort to try to avoid the civilian population area," Col. Mark Goodman, Camp Lejeune's chief safety officer, said at a news conference.
According to Lt. Gen. McCorkle, the Marine piloting the Osprey last night was the most experienced Osprey pilot and was due to become commander of the first Osprey squadron. He said the pilot issued a mayday distress call before the aircraft crashed and burst into flames, but he gave no specifics about the nature of the crisis.
The flight data recorder had been recovered intact, but there was no immediate indication of what caused the accident, said Lt. Gen. McCorkle.
At Marine Corps headquarters, Maj. Andersen said Gen. Jones has asked the Pentagon to delay indefinitely a decision that was due this month on giving the go-ahead to begin full-rate production of the Osprey, which is a revolutionary tilt-rotor aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like an airplane.
Gen. Jones wants the decision put off "until further information is gathered" regarding the Jacksonville crash, Maj. Andersen said.
The four killed in last night's crash were identified by Marine Corps headquarters as: Lt. Col. Keith M. Sweaney, 42, of Richmond, Va.; 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.
The Jacksonville crash is under investigation. The last communication with the aircraft, based at the Marine Corps Air Station at New River, N.C., was a mayday call received at 7:27 p.m., officials said.
"The pilot gave no specifics on the nature of the situation, just that it was a mayday," Lt. Gen. McCorkle said.
"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."
Rescue workers had to use a bulldozer to create a path through the trees so they could reach the site about 10 miles north of Jacksonville.
The Osprey program has had a troubled history. There were nine aircraft in the Marines' inventory before yesterday's crash. A prototype version 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.
Just last month, Gen. Jones, the Marine commandant, said he fully expected the Pentagon to give the go-ahead to begin full-scale production of the Osprey, which is built jointly by Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter Textron.
"I'm confident it should be approved, and I've seen nothing to lead me to believe that it won't," Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press on Nov. 30. Later that day the Marine Corps announced that an Osprey made a "precautionary landing" at Wilmington International Airport in North Carolina. The aircraft was approaching the airport when a warning indicator illuminated, officials said. The landing was described as uneventful and no one was injured.

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