FORT WORTH, Texas -- When Japan's powerful minister of international trade and industry toured the United States in 1990, he asked to see only one thing being built by Americans.
Hikaru Matsunaga wanted a glimpse of Bell Helicopter's radical new aircraft, a hybrid combining the best of helicopters and turboprops. He came away impressed.
"If you produce this aircraft, I guarantee you, we will buy it," he told his Bell hosts after touring their factory here. "If you do not, I guarantee you, we will build it."
The Japanese are keeping that promise.
As the Pentagon and Congress argue over whether the United States can afford the revolutionary plane, a tiny Japanese firm has set up shop just 15 miles from the Bell plant and is hiring key Bell workers to build its own version.
Supporters of Bell's plane worry that it may become the equivalent of the video-cassette recorder -- a technology worth
billions of dollars invented in the United States but perfected and sold worldwide by the Japanese.
Taiichi Ishida, whose grandfather, Taizo, transformed Toyota Motor Corp. from a small automaker to worldwide dominance, has hired former Bell officials as his company's president, vice president and chief engineer, key designer and top pilot.
The allure of the plane is its ability to take off like a helicopter and then cruise at more than 300 mph, up to three times the speed of conventional choppers.
Both engines on the Bell craft's fixed wings can be pointed upward, allowing it take off and land like a helicopter, but tilt forward once airborne so it can fly like an airplane. In the Japanese version, the entire wing with its attached engines is positioned upward on takeoff, then swivels to the normal horizontal position of a fixed wing aircraft.
Such aircraft would be ideal for the four of every 10 commercial flights within the United States that are 300 miles or less, experts say.
"I am fully convinced that the civil tilt rotor or tilt wing will eventually become a reality," said James Muldoon of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "The United States can either develop and export this technology or end up buying it back from overseas."
Buying it back is looming as the more likely option.
Last week, the former FAA official responsible for monitoring development of both aircraft said he believes the Japanese version, the Ishida TW-68, will be approved by the U.S. government for commercial sale before the American model is.
"Mr. Ishida has a bundle of money," said Jim Honaker, who was in charge of tilt aircraft certification until he retired a month ago. "Bell has slowed down and almost stalled, while Ishida is pressing right on."
Mr. Honaker's conclusion -- backed by officials at both Bell and Ishida -- is surprising. V-22s have been flying for more than three years; the first flight of Ishida's aircraft is at least four years away.
The Marines are paying Bell and its partner, the Boeing Co., nearly $2 billion to build six V-22 prototypes designed to ferry troops from ship to shore. The companies were relying on a Pentagon order for 657 V-22s to convince commercial airlines of their value.
But now the Pentagon wants to kill the V-22, a decision supported by President Bush, as a way to dent the military budget.
Congressional supporters have kept it alive, barely, by funneling money to it over the objections of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Ishida's president, J. David Kocurek, who worked on the V-22 at Bell, said the company "did not start up to compete with Bell." But he acknowledged that Ishida's links to Bell have been "an emotional problem."
Ishida plans on flying its first TW-68 in 1996 and winning FAA approval to sell it by 1998.