Engineers at Moog Inc. in East Aurora can take heart in the fact that their parts have not been implicated in two recent fatal crashes of the V-22 Osprey, the U.S. military's controversial airplane-helicopter hybrid.
But that doesn't mean Moog can rest easy. Some of Moog's parts have run into trouble on the Osprey, a troubled bird that takes off like a chopper but flies like a plane.
And because of the crashes and a scandal involving falsified maintenance records, the Osprey program itself is in jeopardy of being canceled -- a move that would cost Moog hundreds of millions of dollars in business.
"I'm certainly disappointed with what's happened," said Robert Maskrey, Moog's chief operating officer. "But we still think the aircraft is viable. Nothing has changed our mind about that."
Moog employees have been engaged in a grisly task of late: examining Moog-made components from an Osprey that crashed in North Carolina in December, claiming four lives. The earlier crash, in April, killed 19 Marines.
"Nothing could make the crashes less horrible, but we are very relieved that it had nothing to do with us," said Susan Johnson, a Moog spokeswoman.
Instead, the Marine Corps blamed the April crash on pilot error and the December accident on a broken hydraulic line and a software glitch.
Hydraulic lines frequently break in all sorts of aircraft, and this particular failure had nothing to do with the technology unique to the Osprey, said Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, deputy commandant for Marine Corps Aviation.
That's a particular relief to Moog, given that an audit by the Pentagon's top weapons tester late last year found problems with some of the key parts the company makes for the Osprey -- and its hydraulic systems.
The Moog-engineered "swashplate actuators" -- flight controls that guide the helicopter rotors -- "seemed to be especially vulnerable to leaks," said a report by the Defense Department's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
If they were big enough, such leaks could cause the swashplate actuators to stop working during flight, which would lead to a catastrophic crash, aviation experts said.
"Each swashplate actuator is flight critical," the report said. "Each must continue to function or the aircraft will be lost."
The swashplate actuators continued to work throughout 800 hours of flight tests, but they experienced problems 27 times, the Pentagon weapons tester found. On 14 occasions, the swashplate actuators had to be replaced.
Osprey experts blame those problems on the hydraulic systems designed by one of the aircraft's main contractors, Boeing Inc.
To keep the Osprey from getting too heavy, the hydraulic lines were designed with lightweight parts that require it to operate at twice the pressure level of what's common on helicopters.
That "places great stress on hydraulic seals," which is apparently why the Moog swashplate actuators on the rotors tend to leak, said the report from the Defense Department's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
The leaks that occurred during tests were extremely small and not nearly big enough to cause a crash, said Moog's chairman and chief executive officer, Robert T. Brady. Neverthless, Moog has redesigned the seals on the swashplate actuators to decrease the chance of leaks.
Brady said the Pentagon testers were overreacting to a minor problem. "Did anyone mention that the actuators can withstand 50-caliber machine gun fire and still work?" Brady said. "That's what really matters."
In addition, the Pentagon report found that the Moog-made fluid compensation valve was responsible for a large number of hydraulic-system problems.
The report said the hydraulic system experienced glitches 170 times in more than 800 hours of flight testing -- more than any other component of the aircraft.
Most often, that was because Moog's fluid compensation valve failed to properly allocate hydraulic fluid among the Osprey's three hydraulic systems before takeoff. Every time that happened, the Osprey had to be serviced for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
A source close to the Osprey program stressed that the faulty valve is more of an annoyance than a safety hazard.
"It would be the equivalent of driving with the oil level of your car a little low," the source said.
Such annoying little maintenance problems are important, though. In a report on the April 2000 Osprey crash, the Marine Corps noted that "many maintenance hours have been spent maintaining and servicing the various aircraft hydraulic systems."
And the hydraulic troubles contributed to the Pentagon weapon's tester's conclusion that the Osprey is "not operationally suitable."
"That basically means that can't be relied on to do what it's supposed to do," said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a longtime Osprey critic.
The weapons tester's report essentially concluded that the Osprey would be more difficult and expensive to maintain than the conventional helicopter it's intended to replace. During tests, the aircraft required 18 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time.
And the situation could be even worse than the report indicates. Lt. David Nevers, a Marine Corps spokesman, said it's not yet clear whether falsified data was incorporated into those tests.
Nevers conceded that a criminal investigation into possible falsification of maintenance records makes it difficult to know whether the Osprey's performance has been improving in more recent tests.
The Marine Corps certainly hopes it is. Its leaders envision the V-22 leading the way in the next Inchon, carrying Marines from ship to shore -- and carrying them much farther inland -- than any conventional helicopter ever could.
"It moves at twice the speed of the helicopter it's replacing, and can travel five times as far, with triple the payload," Nevers said. "It's a tremendous leap in assault support operations."
Yet the Osprey finds itself embattled long before its first amphibious invasion. Separate investigations are continuing into the December crash and the maintenance records fiasco, and a blue-ribbon panel is doing an independent evaluation of whether the program should go forward.
"Given the track record and the loss of life so far, it would appear to me that there are very serious questions that can and should be -- and I hope will be -- raised about the Osprey," Vice President Dick Cheney, an early opponent of the plane, said last week on ABC's "This Week."
All this comes at a time when Congress will have to consider whether to spend $38 billion to move the Osprey into full production.
For Moog, the stakes in that decision are huge. The company's current subcontract with Boeing will bring Moog between $170 million and $250 million in business if Congress goes ahead with the program. And Maskrey said Moog could get hundreds of millions in additional business if the other branches of the service end up ordering Ospreys, too.
While no jobs would likely be lost if the program were canceled, "there are an odd number of people we may need if the program got bought at a higher rate," Maskrey said.
He even envisions the day when a commercial version of the Osprey flies from a helicopter landing pad in Washington to one in New York, saving travelers the hassle of going to and from the airport.
Moreover, the Osprey is crucial to the Marines' ability to transport troops farther and faster than ever before, said M. Thomas Owens, a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. Without it, the Marines will have to rely on one of two far smaller and older helicopters that make amphibious landings far more difficult.
"Without the Osprey, we'd be left with two options, neither of them good," Owen said.
For that reason, Brady said the public and the press should understand that trouble frequently occurs when innovative new aircraft first take to the air.
"Until the bugs are worked out, it's always dangerous to fly them," he said. "When the problems with the Osprey are understood, it will be understood that they're solveable."
News Washington bureau correspondent Jerry Zremski can be reached by email at email@example.com.