Marine aircraft crashes in Arizona; 19 killed |

Marine aircraft crashes in Arizona; 19 killed

MICHELLE RUSHLO, Associated Press Writer

MARANA, Ariz. (AP) – A Marine Corps aircraft attempting to land during a nighttime training mission crashed and burst into flames, killing all 19 aboard and adding to a checkered history for a new breed of hybrid plane that can take off and land like a helicopter.

The MV-22 tiltrotor Osprey, which looks like a turboprop, is part of a new generation of aircraft scheduled to eventually replace all of the Marines’ primary troop-transport helicopters. The military began flying the aircraft six months ago.

The four crew members in Saturday night’s crash were from a task force headquartered in Quantico, Va. The passengers were 14 Marines from 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and one from Marine Corps Air Station-Miramar in San Diego County, according to the Marine Corps.

On Sunday, investigators were reviewing the crash site at Marana Northwest Regional Airport west of Tucson. Few details were released.

Carol Ward, who lives about five miles from the airport, said she watched the plane fly by from her porch. It disappeared behind a mountain and a few second later ”I saw the smoke and this big old poof,” she said.

The dust from the crash ”just eliminated the sky,” she said.

A heap of twisted, charred metal was visible at the scene and aerial footage showed a large blackened patch on the airport grounds.

Military officials said the downed aircraft had been attempting to land at the airport when it crashed. It was one of two Ospreys simulating the evacuation of civilians, similar to what Marines would do if they were removing people from an embassy in a hostile country.

The mission was conducted with night vision goggles and infrared radar, officials said.

Firefighters said witnesses reported seeing the plane head straight down and become engulfed in flames after it crashed.

”Our sympathies go out to the families of these Marines,” said Marine Lt. Mark Carter, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, where the flight originated.

President Clinton called the units’ commanding officers and asked them to ”pass condolences to the families and tell them of the importance of their service,” White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said.

The crash is again raising questions about the safety of the aircraft that has been over a decade in the making.

Former President Bush’s administration tried to scuttle the project after early safety concerns, but builders say modifications from the original design make today’s Ospreys lighter and safer.

The Marine Corps lists two other Osprey crashes, both early in the aircraft’s development: One, in 1991 in Delaware, was blamed on gyro wiring problems; and the other, in 1992 in Virginia, killed all seven people on board after an engine caught fire.

Jointly produced by Bell Helicopter Textron of Fort Worth, Texas, and Boeing Co., in Ridley Park, Pa., the Osprey can achieve speeds of more than 400 mph and an altitude of 25,000 feet. It is designed to carry up to 24 troops or external loads of 15,000 pounds.

The hybrid aircraft flies at twice the speed, has twice the range and carries twice the payload of the Vietnam-era CH-46 helicopters it is expected to replace. The Marines have ordered 360 Ospreys to be delivered by 2014 at a cost of $44 million each, said Capt. Rob Winchester, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Marines had only five Ospreys in use: four out of Yuma, including the one that crashed, and one based at the Marine Corps Air Station, New River, N.C.

Pentagon spokeswoman Capt. Aisha Bakkar-Poe said the Marine Corps’ other four Ospreys will not be flown until ”we can get our arms around what may have happened.”

The planes are not considered grounded, which would require an order from Naval Air Systems citing an official cause.

Boeing spokeswoman Susan Bradley said a Boeing-Bell team was requested and was at the crash site to assist the military.

Military planners see the aircraft as a means of getting more U.S. troops and pilots safely out of danger zones and enhancing drug interdiction, humanitarian and civilian rescue capabilities.

”It’s met or exceeded all of the requirements that we’ve needed,” Winchester said.