- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Before Congress prematurely amputates V-22 Osprey's technology from the body of U.S. defense, the flight test performance of other visionary prototypes should be considered. In historical context, the record of the V-22 four accidents in nine years of development appears neither better nor worse than many parallel projects of lasting value to the nation's defense.

In light of recent events, that comparison is understandably hard to accept, especially for families of the 23 brave Marines who perished in last year's Osprey crash. Those families have a point flight testing should continue until there is widespread confidence that this unique asset is prepared to safely take brave Marines into combat full stop.

In a broader sense however, innovative aeronautical design and flight testing is always risky. The more humans involved, the riskier it is. By way of example, in 1948, the U.S. lost 13 brave pilots in military flight-testing accidents, most flying traditional fixed-wing aircraft. That was also the year Capt. Glen Edwards died crash-landing his YB-49 Flying Wing. Today due in part to his effort we have a highly capable, state-of-the-art B-2 Stealth Bomber. We also have Edwards Air Force Base to remind us of the price paid by those who wring out prototypes on their way to operational success.

In the years immediately thereafter, the U.S. tested increasingly innovative airframes, including the X-15 and X-2, paving the way for the SR-71 Blackbird, a plane capable of Mach 3, as well as other supersonic aircraft part of today's standard air arsenal. These developments, too, came at sobering cost.

In 1956, Capt. Iven Kincheloe soared in the Bell X-2 to a record-setting 126,200 feet. Just weeks later, in the exact same plane, Capt. Mel Apt exceeded mach 3, but promptly perished when his X-2 tumbled out of control. Novel technologies carry disproportionate risk. In fact, despite remarkable flights in the X-15 by pilots like Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield and Neil Armstrong, there were also wincing X-15 crashes.

Mr. Armstrong puts one in mind of the Apollo Program that began in the 1960s, and aeronautical innovations in multi-stage rocketry. Today, Americans go to the Space Station by Shuttle, but not without painful memories of Apollo One, which ended the lives of three superb aviators and astronauts, Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, or more recently the Challenger crew. In both cases, technology was advancing rapidly and an unforeseeable glitch among thousands of mission-critical parts precipitated sudden catastrophe.

And in both cases, the program was strengthened by the unforgettable starkness of the event. A deep reality was the same then and now progress in aviation is necessarily hazardous; those who press the envelope for the sake of the program are, by absolute definition, heroes. In fact, while practicing moon landings on Earth, Neil Armstrong's own vertical take-off platform malfunctioned. He barely escaped with his life, as the platform crashed and burned.

On a more mundane level, military flight training largely underfunded in presidential budgets over the past half decade carries its own costs. Between 1997 and 2001, for example, the U.S. Army experienced 26 class A aviation accidents, each one costing at least a million dollars or causing a fatality. In the same period, Army class B aviation accidents more than $200,000 in damage or placing five or more people in the hospital totaled 13. Between 1999 and 2000 alone, Army aviation accidents in class A rose by 75 percent, while Army aviation class B accidents rose 600 percent. Why? Inherent risk, together with how many dollars are dedicated to pilot training and op-temp, both affect the ultimate price of progress.

Finally, the opportunity cost of not getting back up painfully perfecting and methodically pressing forward the Osprey is high. Alternative rotor and fixed-wing airframes are less capable, more costly to maintain, and fast aging. The Osprey requires complete wringing out that much is self-evident. But that is precisely the conclusion reached when the F-18 E/F fighter had to re-prove itself after discovery late in development of serious wing drop and wing baffle problems.

The realities that should govern the Osprey debate now are timeless. First, every life is precious, indeed priceless. Second, aerodynamic engineering is uncertain and cannot be completed in wind tunnels or on computer simulators. Test piloting is required, and crashes are a tragic sometimes unavoidable part of that noble profession.

Neither war-fighting nor flight-testing is for the faint of heart. In the shadow of these stark facts is one final, quiet truth. To abandon the future in the name of caution is an illusion more dangerous than embracing the uncertainty in progress, no matter how frightening that uncertainty is. Here, as elsewhere, the Marine Corps Hymn is the final word: "In many a strife, we've fought for life, and never lost our nerve." That spirit embodies the men who died in the Osprey and it should embody our approach to the Osprey's future.

Robert Charles was staff director to the U.S. House of Representatives' National Security Subcommittee (1995-1999) and presently teaches government and law at Harvard University Extension School.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide