QUANTICO, Va. -- After years of delays and setbacks, the Marine Corps said Friday that it plans to deploy its unconventional V-22 Osprey aircraft in military operations in al-Anbar province in Iraq in September.
The decision virtually assures that production of aircraft, a hybrid of airplane and helicopter technology, at Boeing's sprawling Ridley Township, Pa., plant will continue well into the future.
The Marines said that despite fatal crashes and ongoing design and production problems going back more than 20 years, the flaws had been worked out. The Marines said intensive testing of the aircraft established that it is superior to the two helicopters it is intended to replace, the CH-46 Sea Knight and the CH-53 Sea Stallion.
"We have gone through a deliberative process, and we believe this is the most capable system," said Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation.
The aircraft is a joint venture of Textron Inc. and Boeing Co., which assembles the Osprey fuselage. The Osprey can take off like a helicopter but can also fly like an airplane at high speeds by tilting its engines forward.
In all, the military plans to purchase 458 Ospreys, the bulk of them destined for the Marines. Deployment of the aircraft to a war zone suggests a high level of confidence among the Marines about its capabilities.
If it performs well there, its chances of continued funding by Congress likely would be enhanced.
As part of Friday's announcement the Marines took reporters on a 25-minute demonstration flight at the Marine base here, a trip designed to showcase the aircraft's speed and maneuverability advantages over helicopters.
Only a few years ago, continued production of the aircraft seemed uncertain.
A crash in Arizona in April 2000 claimed the lives of 19 Marines. Another crash in December of that year killed four others and prompted the Pentagon to halt all flights to determine whether the Osprey concept was flawed.
Concern focused largely on aerodynamic features unique to the Osprey, and its tendency on some descents to become enveloped in its own rotor downwash, a condition known as vortex ring state, and then crash.
While helicopters too are subject to similar difficulties, little was known at the time of the 2000 crash in Arizona, which was attributed to vortex ring state, about steps pilots could take to reverse that condition.
Since then, the military and Boeing officials say they have developed flight tactics that make it relatively simple to avoid the condition, or to reverse it if it arises.
Castellaw said Friday that having solved that and other problems, the aircraft clearly was superior to helicopters as a transport for Marines into war zones.
Because it is able to fly like an airplane, it is twice as fast, much quieter, and capable of withdrawing under enemy fire far more rapidly than a helicopter. Moreover, Osprey also can fly at much higher altitude, up to 10,000 feet with passengers, putting it out of the range of shoulder fired missiles and machine gun fire.
Some critics of the aircraft, which according to the Government Accountability Office costs about $100 million apiece, maintain that it has less maneuverability as it descends than a helicopter.
But the Marines said Friday that the Osprey's ability to withdraw under enemy fire at speeds far greater than a helicopter make it a safer aircraft.
"If you have ever gone rabbit hunting, you know that the rabbit is a lot harder to hit if it is running than if it is sitting still," Castellaw said.
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