WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps' troubled Osprey aircraft, under intense scrutiny because of four fatal crashes, also has experienced a series of previously undisclosed mechanical failures over the last 2 1/2 years, military officials have told a blue-ribbon study panel.
Among the seven incidents were three major hydraulic leaks, two of which caused engine fires, the study panel was told in closed session last month by officials from the U.S. Naval Safety Center. Another incident involved the failure of a special drive shaft that is required for the aircraft to continuing flying if one engine fails.
The mechanical failures raise new questions about the innovative hybrid plane, especially its complex and delicate hydraulic system. Although none of the seven incidents resulted in a crash, analysts said that several easily could have caused an Osprey to go down.
Taken together with the four fatal crashes, one of which was attributed to a hydraulic failure, the incidents suggest that the Osprey's problems are more serious than those experienced by other military aircraft during development and that its safety record is worse than previously disclosed. The new disclosures come at a particularly bad time for the Marines because Bush administration officials have declared that they are looking for major procurement programs to cut.
Documents summarizing the Naval Safety Center's report to the study panel were provided to the Los Angeles Times. The Marines were not required to publicly disclose the mishaps. Some of the newly disclosed incidents "look like accidents waiting to happen," said Michael Vickers, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.
Philip E. Coyle, who retired last month as the Pentagon's top weapons tester, said the incidents reflect the "unsatisfactory reliability and maintainability" of the Osprey, and that some of the mishaps "represent reliability failures with clear safety implications."
The Osprey has become the Marines' top acquisition priority because its tilting rotors enable the craft to take off and land like a helicopter and speed across long distances like an airplane. It is manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, and Boeing Helicopters of Ridley Township, Pa.
But the $30 billion procurement program has come under fire because of a continuing series of accidents that have killed 30 people since 1991. The Pentagon convened the study commission in December to conduct a broad reassessment of the program shortly after the latest Osprey crash, which occurred Dec. 11 and killed four Marines.
Defense analysts said that the program appears increasingly vulnerable. Attention has focused on two issues: whether the plane is unstable during rapid descents, and whether it has a trouble-prone hydraulic system.
The hydraulic system, which controls the movement of aircraft components, has been an area of concern for years. According to the Marines, it was a key factor in the December crash.
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