Will Boeing's Part-Plane, Part-Helicopter Osprey Take off with Buyers?

Bell Boeing's part-plane, part-helicopter V-22 Osprey is a popular sight during daily flying displays here, taking off vertically before its rotors lower to allow it to cruise horizontally around the airfield.

But the crucial question for Bell Boeing executives at the Farnborough International Airshow this week is whether the tiltrotor aircraft will attract the same sort of awed attention from international buyers. Bell Boeing is a partnership between Bell Helicopter, a subsidiary of industrial conglomerate Textron, Inc. and Boeing Co.

The Osprey has been dogged by safety and operational problems since its launch 20 years ago and, despite modifications, critics still claim it is simply too expensive and too dangerous.

The U.S. Marine Corps, which has been promoting the plane since it was conceived, remains Bell Boeing's only customer for the multimillion-dollar plane.

"We are trying to make the aircraft as attractive as we can to other consumers," said Mike Tkach, Boeing vice president and general manager for rotorcraft, at Farnborough this week.

Tkach said there has been "substantial interest in the airplane from a number of countries."

Chief Executive Mike Redenbaugh said international military customers could easily be accommodated in the relatively long, 30-month lead time for production of each aircraft. He said several prospective international customers would be given test flights at Farnborough, including Britain and Japan.

Tkach said Bell Boeing would focus over the next 12 months on further reducing the cost of the hybrid aircraft, one of its major stumbling blocks to attracting buyers.

The U.S. Marines have a target cost per aircraft of $58 million by fiscal year 2010. Bell Boeing said it was roughly halfway toward meeting that target, having taken the cost from a staggering $78 million to $69 million to date.

"We'll pay a little more," Lt. General John Castellaw, the Marine deputy commandant for aviation, said at Farnborough, "but we'll get a heck of a lot."

Unlike conventional rotary wing aircraft, which must be transported into overseas theaters of operation aboard amphibious shipping or heavy lift transport planes, the V-22 can self-deploy thousands of miles over water. Its hybrid nature also allows it to get in and out quickly.

However, while the Marines have around 40 Ospreys deployed at U.S. bases, there are none in service overseas or in combat.

Many analysts are pessimistic that the extra capability is enough to justify the still hefty price tag.

"The training is just so expensive that no other country would be interested," said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington D.C. "Particularly when you can buy a Blackhawk for $16 million."

"Here you have a plane that's been 20 years in development, and there still aren't any in the field. If they don't get any firm sales, they are not going to get costs down," Korb said.

Apart from the cost, questions remain about the safety of the aircraft.

The aircraft program was halted for a review after crashes in 2000 that killed four Marines in North Carolina and 19 in Arizona. But the $49 billion program was restarted by the Pentagon last year.

Even the much-vaunted first trans-Atlantic flight for two Ospreys traveling to Farnborough was marred when one developed engine problems in bad weather and was forced to make an unscheduled landing in Iceland, where the $2 million engine was replaced.

However, the Marines insist they have overcome the problems.

Castellaw said the engine failure over the Atlantic was being investigated, but added that it was a good test of the aircraft. The Block A aircraft being displayed here do not feature the anti-icing capabilities of the upgraded Block B MV-22s.

So confident is Gen. Michael Hagee, the Marine commandant, in the safety standards of the Osprey that he gave it the ultimate thumbs up at Farnborough - he took his wife up for a spin.

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