FORT WORTH, Texas, 21 January 2005. The Pentagon's V-22 project managers and Bell Helicopter are looking for a solution to a new mechanical problem with the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
Marines preparing for a prolonged series of crucial operational tests of the V-22 suspended flights more than a week ago after several incidents forced flight crews to land the aircraft immediately.
Six such incidents have occurred, three in the last month. Mechanics examining the aircraft found that small particles of chrome used to coat bearings in the V-22 drivetrain had flaked off, triggering warning sensors that detect foreign material that could damage the gears.
The V-22 has not been grounded, insisted Ward Carroll, spokesman for the V-22 program office. The Marine test squadron elected not to fly until further analysis is performed and repairs are made, Carroll said, but other V-22s are being flown at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and the Navy's Patuxent River test center in Maryland.
Carroll said the chrome flakes did not constitute an immediate safety hazard but could have posed a long-term problem with increased wear and tear. The V-22 flight manual instructs pilots to land as soon as possible when they get a warning.
Engineers and other experts for Bell and Boeing who have examined the bearings believe the chrome coating was applied too thinly, Carroll said, and are working with the manufacturers to come up with a solution.
Bell Helicopter spokesman Bob Leder said that the bearing in question is used in other aircraft besides the V-22 and that the company has taken steps to notify the Defense Department and other aircraft manufacturers of the potential problem.
"We're very confident that this will be resolved soon and satisfactorily," Leder said.
The latest problem comes at a crucial point for the oft-troubled V-22 program. A meeting is scheduled for Thursday, where Navy, Marine and Pentagon officials are to review the V-22s progress and possibly decide whether to allow the program to proceed with several months of operational tests.
It hasn't been decided whether the review will take place as planned, Carroll said, or whether the start of operational tests might be delayed.
V-22 flights could resume next week, said Marine Capt. Marisol Zammit of VMX-22, the test squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, in Jacksonville, N.C.
Zammit said the squadron is awaiting new parts and a new Osprey built with an improved gearbox.
The V-22 is built jointly by Bell and Boeing, with work performed in Fort Worth and Amarillo.
By Bob Cox, Staff Writer, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
This report contains material from the Associated Press.