WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Five years after 23 U.S. Marines were killed in flight tests, the Pentagon on Wednesday approved full-rate production of the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft, built by Textron Inc. unit Bell Helicopter and Boeing Co..
The decision to accelerate production of the V-22, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but can fly like a plane, was hailed by company executives, military officials and backers in Congress.
But watchdog groups said they still worried about the ability of the revolutionary new aircraft, also known as the Osprey, to fly into combat.
Members of the Pentagon's high-level Defense Acquisition Board approved the boost in production -- set to peak at 48 aircraft a year early next decade -- at a three-hour meeting.
The decision followed a report this week by the Pentagon's office of test and evaluation which certified that three years of flight tests had shown the aircraft to be reliable, effective and able to conduct its primary missions.
A move into full-rate production frees up as much as $20 billion in potential orders to a 50-50 joint venture of Bell and Boeing, which is building the aircraft for the Marine Corps and the Air Force, the companies said.
"This is great day for the Bell-Boeing team," Bell Helicopter Chief Executive Michael Redenbaugh, calling the V-22 "the most versatile aircraft in the world."
"Today we mark a truly game-changing advancement in the aviation industry," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Currently, Osprey production is capped by Congress at a "minimum sustaining" level of 11 per year. The Bell/Boeing output will gradually rise to 22 aircraft a year by 2009 and peak at 48 annually by 2012 under full production.
Marine Corps officials are eager to deploy the Osprey, designed to replace the aging workhorse CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, after the long delay caused by the fatal accidents. The V-22 can fly twice as fast at more than twice the altitude, with three times the payload and six times the range.
"There literally is no other aircraft in the world that can give you the speed and range of an airplane with the vertical agility of a helicopter," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.
But Eric Miller at the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight said the decision could prove a costly mistake.
"We still have concerns that this is a good aircraft to fly into combat, because of the maneuverability issue and because if you come in too fast, the aircraft will roll and it's almost impossible to recover," he said.
The Marine Corps wants to buy 360 Ospreys, which currently cost $71 million each, although it wants to knock the price down to $58 million by fiscal 2010 in then-current dollars.
Redenbaugh said Bell-Boeing had already taken steps to reduce the cost of the aircraft, and increased production would allow it to negotiate better contracts with suppliers, driving the price down to the Marine Corps goal.
He said the company was already exploring other possible markets for the V-22, including possibly as an Air Force search and rescue aircraft, and foreign military sales. In addition, a smaller Bell tiltrotor, Eagle Eye, already ordered by the Coast Guard, would begin flying this year, he said.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, where Bell builds the V-22, called the decision great news for U.S. troops, saying full output "clears the way for a more efficient and lower-cost delivery of this next-generation military aircraft."
The Pentagon halted V-22 testing for 17 months after 23 Marines were killed in two crashes in April and December 2000.
David Duma, acting head of the Pentagon Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, this week concluded over 5,000 flight hours of tests proved that software and hydraulic line issues, blamed for the December 2000 crash, had been fixed.
The CV-22, the Air Force version of the Osprey, is due to undergo a separate operational testing phase late next year.
Textron shares closed down four cents to $68.72 on the New York Stock Exchange. Boeing shares closed up 66 cents at $67.21.
Did you find this article insightful?