Fatal crash likely to 'complicate' Osprey program, but may not kill it

July 22, 1992|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau Staff writer Michael James contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- The latest crash of the experimental V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft -- which killed a Marine Corps test pilot from Baltimore and six other people -- "will significantly complicate" the future of the $30 billion project, the Pentagon declared yesterday.

"Before you move ahead, you want to know what the cause was of this crash so we don't replicate the problem as we move ahead with the V-22" and other options for a new Marine aircraft, said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams.

But the V-22 program, which Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had tried to kill for four consecutive years, will not die, influential members of Congress predicted. The aircraft, the crown jewel of modernization plans for the Marines, continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support, even though the crash will slow down the program, they said.

At a Pentagon briefing, Mr. Williams said investigators "do not yet have any idea" what might have caused one of five Osprey prototypes to crash into the Potomac River while trying to land at the Quantico Marine Air Facility early Monday afternoon.

Witnesses said the tilt-rotor aircraft -- designed to take off like a helicopter and fly with the range and speed of a fixed-wing airplane -- was shifting its engines for landing when it crashed.

An attempt to recover the bodies of the crash victims and salvage the aircraft wreckage is scheduled for today. Mr. Williams said Navy divers reported seeing four bodies through a window behind the cockpit.

The three Marines aboard were identified as Maj. Brian J. James, 34, of Baltimore, the aircraft's co-pilot; Gunnery Sgt. Sean P. Joyce, 32, of San Francisco; and Master Gunnery Sgt. Gary Leader, 40, of Milwaukee. The men, assigned to the Rotary Wing Aircraft Test Directorate at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, were declared missing and presumed dead.

The civilians, who worked for the Philadelphia-based Boeing Helicopters, one of the prime contractors of the project, were identified as Pat Sullivan, 43, of Aston, Pa.; the test director, Bob Rayburn, 34, of Newark, Del.; Tony Stecyk, 36, Lester, Pa.; and Gerry Mayan, 30, of Smyrna, Del., the Pentagon said.

Major James' father, Fred James, said last night from his son's home in Lexington Park that the family was very shaken and had heard few details about the accident.

"We're just in limbo right now. We're not sure what to say," Mr. James said. "They haven't even found [his body] yet."

Major James' wife, Deana, recently gave birth to the couple's fourth child, said Rick Kammer, who served in the same squadron with the pilot when they were flight instructors at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fla., from 1987 to 1990.

Major James, who grew up in the Gardenville section of Northeast Baltimore, graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and the University of Maryland and earned a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Florida.

For the past two years, he had been one of 37 test pilots assigned to the elite 325-member Patuxent unit.

During his years in Pensacola, where he taught aspiring Navy pilots on T-34 trainers, then-Captain James organized a group of instructors to help raise money and volunteer time at a local home for disadvantaged boys, Mr. Kammer said. Orioles baseball was another passion. When the Baltimore team had a shot at the American League East pennant in 1989, "we flew together from Pensacola to Milwaukee to watch the O's, and he made me paint my face black and orange and wear it in Milwaukee stadium," Mr. Kammer said.

"He was not the proverbial top-gun type; he was a real family man who loved kids," Mr. Kammer said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "He wasn't a risk-taker other than the fact that he was in a risky business."

With Major James and Mr. Sullivan at the controls, the V-22 had flown about 760 miles from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where it had undergone a rigorous series of "climactic" tests that subjected the aircraft to extreme temperatures. It made two or three passes over the Quantico airfield before heading over water to make the transition for a helicopter-style vertical landing when the crash occurred about a half-mile from the runway, Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Williams announced that the three remaining V-22s were grounded. A fifth aircraft was destroyed in a crash at Delaware's New Castle County Airport in June 1991. No one was hurt in that accident.

Mr. Cheney, who has opposed the project as too expensive, "still does not think the [Defense] Department can afford to move into production," Mr. Williams said.

Nonetheless, he added, Mr. Cheney remains committed to a deal he proposed to Congress that would keep the V-22 alive as long as he could explore other options.

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