Experimental aircraft crashes 7 believed dead


WASHINGTON -- A prototype of the V-22 Osprey, a tilt-rotor aircraft whose future was already the subject of furious debate, crashed yesterday in the Potomac River with seven people on board. Pentagon officials said no survivors had been found.

The aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like a plane, was headed for a landing at the Marine Corps air station in Quantico, Va.

The aircraft was developed by a partnership of Bell Helicopter Textron and the helicopter division of Boeing Co. Pentagon officials and spokesmen for the two companies said they did not know the cause of the crash, but would investigate.

Marine Sgt. Joseph M. Nuss said the Osprey was preparing to land at Quantico when an explosion occurred and the plane plunged into the water at 1:42 p.m. Master Sgt. Paul F. Earle, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the crash resulted from "unknown technical problems."

Two other spokesmen for the Marine Corps, Maj. Barry Moore and Cpl. John W. Fritscher, said there were no known survivors. Robert Torgerson, a spokesman for Boeing, said there were four Boeing employees and three Marine Corps employees on the aircraft.

An earlier prototype Osprey was irreparably damaged in a crash in Delaware in June 1991 during its first test flight.

The Osprey has become a symbol of the controversy swirling around Pentagon efforts to cut military spending. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has repeatedly criticized the Osprey program as too costly and has complained that the prototype aircraft was 3,000 pounds over its weight limit.

Mr. Cheney took steps to kill the Osprey, but Congress put money into the budget to build the plane. When Mr. Cheney initially refused to spend it, Congress complained that he was illegally impounding the money.

Finally, on July 2, Mr. Cheney agreed to spend $1.5 billion he had been withholding. His decision allowed work on the plane to continue, but he put off judgment on whether the armed forces should buy the Osprey or an alternative helicopter still in development.

The crash may increase opposition to the tilt-rotor plane in Congress. The effect of the crash on congressional support for the plane will be determined, in part, by the cause of the accident.

If there was a fundamental flaw in design of the aircraft, support for its development might wane, say congressional aides. But if the cause was a simple problem and can be easily fixed, support for the Osprey program would probably not be diminished, they said.

The Osprey has retained strong support among members of Congress, especially those from states where the plane is being developed, like Texas and Pennsylvania, which also have large numbers of electoral votes. The Marine Corps has also supported the aircraft.

And lawmakers have generally been reluctant to make deep cuts in the military budget despite the end of the Cold War, fearing reductions would increase unemployment in this election year.

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