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US Marines Sending New Aircraft into Battle


The U.S. Marines are preparing to send a new tilt rotor aircraft into combat for the first time. And the American manufacturer predicts a civilian version may soon appear over many of the world's cities. The military development, however, has been plagued with problems and setbacks and there are questions whether the aircraft will be a commercial success. VOA's Jim Fry reports:

The two engine Marine Osprey flies like an airplane -- its speed, a plus over the battlefield.

And with its rotors tilted upwards, the mid-sized troop transport can land like a helicopter. It will touch down in Iraq sometime in September.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway says, "I will just say that the quantum leap in technology that this aircraft will bring to the fight has been a road marked by some setbacks."

Setbacks, such as a crash during a training mission like a Marine simulation. The April 2000 accident killed 19 Marines.

As the Marines demonstrated the aircraft near Washington, D.C. last month, commanders said they had overcome a series of problems during more than 20 years of development. There were several other fatal crashes, technical glitches, design flaws and even a military cover-up of safety problems.

Squadron Commander Lieutenant Colonel Chris Rock explained, "People who fly the plane, we have families. We would not be flying something we thought was going to kill us."

The lead manufacturer, Bell Helicopter of Texas, plans to turn achievement on the battlefield into commercial success.

"We have orders for that from around the world for a wide variety of missions," said Bell spokesman Bob Leder.

The company has taken several dozen international orders for a much smaller tilt rotor built with Italian partner Agusta Aerospace Corporation. The BA 609 will be delivered in three years as an executive aircraft, air ambulance and transport to off-shore oil platforms. The company also hopes to develop an alternative to long waits at crowded airports.

A larger commercial tilt rotor aircraft could provide passenger service into a crowded city like London -- as seen in a company video. The company sees possibilities all over the world says Leder. "Downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil to downtown Rio de Janeiro; downtown Munich to downtown Paris."

Aircraft industry analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group raises economic issues.

A tilt rotor aircraft that could seat as many as 40 people, he says, could cost 40 million dollars to build -- much more than price of a commuter jet. He says that would translate to tickets four or five times higher than on the airlines.

"This is an industry where Southwest Airlines [a U.S. discount airline] made huge inroads into everybody's markets by offering $10, $20 off everybody else."

Even the smaller version, he says, will be little more than an expensive novelty for only about two dozen customers each year.

"In terms of special operations and Marine operations, this will be a potent war fight tool. But to expect any commercial spin off from it -- complete pipe dream," says Aboulafia.

The Marines took a few reporters on a ride last month -- a chance to fly in an aircraft few have experienced. "So, we went down like 45 degrees like this. And they have a climb -- real steep," recounted Tomohiro Deguchi, a reporter for Kyoto News Service.

Luis Martinez, an ABC News video journalist added, "Would you pay a fare to fly in one of these from one place to another? Probably not. My kids would not like it."

A company official says commercial flights would be much smoother. And if people have jitters?

"You know, when we went from bi-planes to monoplanes, people said, 'Well you know, it does not have two wings--how can it be safe?' " answered Bell Helicopter’s Leder.

The company believes it would not take long for paying customers to accept a new concept in flying.