Even Dick Cheney couldn't kill the V-22 helicopter
Compared to the V-22, Lazarus was a piker.
Lazarus only rose from the dead once. And it took a special visit by Jesus Christ to make that happen. The V-22 should have been killed, dead, and buried half a dozen times by cost- and safety-conscious bureaucrats. And yet, thanks largely to the Texas Congressional delegation (a group seldom confused with the Christ) the V-22 continues to stay aloft, gnawing big chunks out of the Pentagon budget. Not even Dick Cheney, a man who has never been considered anything but a devout hawk, could drive a stake through the heart of the V-22, even though he spent his entire tenure as George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary trying to do just that.
The V-22, also known as the Osprey, continues to feast at the federal trough despite a cost record that could bankrupt Warren Buffett and a safety record that would make Evel Knievel pee in his pants. By the end of this year, the Pentagon will have built about four dozen copies of the exotic tilt-rotor aircraft at a cost of $16 billion. Out of those aircraft, five have crashed. In fact, the V-22’s safety record is so bad, Pentagon spokesmen refuse to provide comprehensive accident statistics on the flying machine. And yet, the V-22—the biggest waste of defense dollars since the $1,600 toilet seat—continues to fly.
On paper, the V-22 looks like a great idea: Marry the vertical takeoff and landing capability of a helicopter with the speed of an airplane. But making that idea into reality has been more difficult than finding Osama bin Laden. And despite nearly 50 years of development work and billions of dollars of investment, the smartest engineers on earth still haven’t been able to come up with a reliable, affordable tilt-rotor aircraft.
Four of the first 15 versions of the V-22 ended up in smoldering ruins. Over the past few years, V-22 crashes have killed 26 Marines and four civilians.
Despite the deaths, the Marine Corps insists that it needs the V-22. In April 2003, Marine Lt. Gen. Emil R. Bedard told a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the V-22’s “range, speed, payload and survivability will generate truly transformational tactical and operational capabilities.” While that might be true, it’s clear that the Marines have embarrassed themselves in their single-minded pursuit of the aircraft. In 2001, three Marine officers were implicated in a scheme to falsify maintenance records on a squadron of V-22s that were being tested in North Carolina in an effort to make the aircraft look more capable.
The Marines want the V-22 even though it cannot carry as many soldiers as a modern, medium-lift helicopter; it costs up to five times more than a comparable standard helicopter; and, thanks to its unusual design, it’s inherently less safe.
Taken together, all of those flaws should have blown the V-22 out of the sky a long time ago. And yet, the aircraft is still being produced. This year, the Pentagon will spend $1.1 billion to build 11 more copies of the V-22. Despite that cost, despite a myriad of budget battles that it should have lost, despite a total projected price tag of $43 billion that reeks of pork barrel politics, despite a belief among some of the smartest people at the Pentagon that the aircraft can never be made safe, the V-22 continues to thrive. It thrives because of savvy lobbying by the V-22’s primary producers: Bell Helicopter and Boeing. It thrives because the Pentagon has been given a no-limit credit card when it comes to fighting the war on terrorism. But perhaps more importantly, the V-22 thrives because it is put together at plants in Fort Worth and Amarillo. And the Texas delegation on Capitol Hill has made certain that those defense jobs are not lost.
Of course, there’s plenty of pork in the Pentagon budget. But the V-22’s story is extraordinary by any measure: It has cost more and killed more personnel than any other aircraft now being developed by the U.S. military. Here’s how it became one of the most dangerous aircraft in the American arsenal.
Larry Bell was an innovator. By the mid-1950s, the daring designer from Indiana had revolutionized the aerospace business in both airplanes and helicopters. He had built the P-29 Airacomet, the American military’s very first jet-powered airplane, which was tested with great secrecy during World War II. He had designed the rocket-propelled X-1, which broke the sound barrier while being flown by noted test pilot Chuck Yeager in 1947. He had also designed the Bell 47-B, the first commercially licensed helicopter. Shortly after getting the 47-B into the market, Bell lent one (along with a pilot and mechanic) to Lyndon Johnson for his 1948 Senate campaign against Coke Stevenson. Bell provided the helicopter to Johnson for free.
In the early 1950s, Bell moved his company, Bell Helicopter, to the outskirts of Fort Worth and began pursuing contracts with the Pentagon. In 1958, Bell Helicopter got its first major contract from the U.S. Army for the aircraft that was destined to become an icon of the Vietnam War, the UH-1, better known as the Huey. That same year, Bell Helicopter had the first successful flight of an experimental aircraft known as the XV-3. The company told the Dallas Morning News that it had “achieved a major breakthrough in aviation engineering” by flying the world’s first “tilting-rotor fixed-wing aircraft.”
In theory, tilt-rotor aircraft have an advantage that has always been critical in warfare: speed. Helicopters are tremendously useful machines but compared to airplanes, they are quite slow. That’s due to the drag created by the helicopter’s blades. When a helicopter hovers in one place, the rotor blades push air straight down and therefore create lift in all areas of the blades’ diameter. To make the aircraft go forward, the pilot pushes the cyclic control forward, which causes the rotor system to tilt forward, thus allowing the aircraft to begin accelerating. However, as the helicopter picks up speed, the air flowing over the rotor blades gets imbalanced. The resulting air disturbance begins to impede the progress of the aircraft and limit its forward speed. Even the fastest helicopters have trouble reaching speeds of 200 miles per hour. The tilt-rotor design solves the airflow problem by turning the rotor into a propeller. (The V-22’s blades are called proprotors.) That allows the aircraft to turn all of the thrust from the rotor blades into forward thrust, and that permits the V-22 to fly in excess of 300 miles per hour. The V-22 also claims to have a range of some 2,500 miles, several times the range of a standard helicopter.
However, the actual range of the V-22 has been grossly exaggerated. Bell and the Marines have repeatedly said the aircraft’s “self-deployment range” is 2,500 miles. But it’s only by asking for more specifics that Bell’s PR people admit that “self-deployment” includes hooking up to a flying tanker for an aerial refueling. Without refueling, the V-22’s range is about 590 miles, little better than a standard helicopter. Several modern helicopters now have ranges of 500 miles or more. And the V-22 refueling issue has not been fully resolved. The V-22 has not yet been cleared by Pentagon safety officials for aerial refueling, a fact that the GAO noted in its 2001 report on the airplane.
The Marines have always wanted to move as fast as possible. And given a choice, they want to do it vertically. That’s why they love the Harrier—the most dangerous fighter aircraft in existence—and that’s why they love the V-22. Like the Harrier, the Marines see the V-22 as an aircraft that will give them greater range of operations and less need for standard airports. And like the Harrier, the Marine Corps has staked its reputation and committed billions of dollars by making the V-22 its top aviation priority. In 1991, one active-duty Marine wrote a report that said the aircraft was “crucial to the Marine Corps’ over-the-horizon, amphibious assault mission—providing for vertical envelopment from over-the-horizon distances which will increase amphibious ship protection and enemy surprise well into the next century.” The Marines are hoping that the V-22 will replace the CH-46 helicopter, a troop carrier that has been in use since the Vietnam War.
The Pentagon’s push for the V-22 began in 1981 at the Paris Air Show, when then-Secretary of the Navy John Lehman saw Bell’s tilt-rotor aircraft and became intrigued. The Secretary of the Air Force, Hans Mark, who had helped Bell develop the V-22 prototype while he was director of a research center for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, sold Lehman on the aircraft. Within a few months of Mark’s pitch, the Army, the Navy, and the Marines were all pursuing the V-22.
In 1982, Bell and Boeing, the Seattle-based aerospace giant, formed a joint venture to push the new aircraft. In 1986, the two companies were rewarded for their effort and got a $1.7 billion military contract. The following year, the Pentagon said it would purchase 913 V-22s at a cost of about $33.2 billion. The cost per aircraft: $36.4 million. But in 1988, the Army pulled out of the program, saying the V-22s were too expensive. At that point, the Pentagon reduced the scope of the program to a total of 657 aircraft: 552 V-22s for the Marines, 50 for the Navy, and 55 for the Air Force.
Then, the V-22 had its first crash landing—on Dick Cheney’s desk.
In 1989, in his first appearance before Congress as George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Cheney made it clear that things were going to be different. The new defense secretary said that tighter budgets required the Pentagon to cut wasteful spending. As part of that, Cheney and his boss had agreed to cut 3 percent of the Pentagon budget, or about $9.7 billion, Rather than spend billions more on the V-22, Cheney said the Pentagon had “opted to stay with established weapons programs where production lines are operating efficiently rather than pursue the development of unproven technology.”
Cheney’s budget succeeded in making just about everybody in Texas, and particularly in Fort Worth, mad. That’s not surprising. At the time Cheney axed the V-22, only two other cities in America exceeded Fort Worth as recipients of federal defense dollars. The Pentagon was spending $3.4 billion per year in Fort Worth—primarily with Bell Helicopter and General Dynamics, which is now part of Lockheed Martin, the defense giant that builds the F-16 fighter, the F-22 stealth fighter, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As a whole, Texas was getting more defense dollars than any other state, except for California and Virginia. (the same statistic holds true today). And Texas politicos were eager to make sure that the dollars kept flowing. They were joined by powerful congressmen from Pennsylvania who wanted to make sure that Pentagon dollars kept flowing to the Boeing plant in Philadelphia, where the V-22’s fuselage was to be built.
Shortly after Cheney presented his budget, the full House—led by congressmen from Texas and Pennsylvania—overrode his decision on the V-22 and provided funding for the aircraft. In 1990, Cheney stuck to his guns and again refused to put any money in his budget for the V-22 and instead asked Congress to appropriate money for a cheaper medium-lift helicopter, one capable of carrying about two dozen personnel. Congress reversed Cheney again, and authorized over $600 million for research and building of the V-22. Congress also prohibited the Pentagon from using any research and development funds on any aircraft that might replace the Osprey. The same scenario played out in 1991, with Cheney asking that no money be spent on the V-22 and Congress reversing him.
In April of 1992, Cheney laid out his opposition to the aircraft in a letter to House Speaker Tom Foley. He said that while the V-22 has “some capabilities not found in less expensive alternatives, the increased capability is simply not affordable.” Cheney pointed out that building six copies of the V-22 would cost $2.8 billion, which was $2 billion more than Congress had authorized for the project. Instead of being lauded for pointing out the obvious, Cheney was threatened with a lawsuit, by—who else?—a group of congressmen headed by Texans. Shortly after he sent his letter to Foley, Texas Democrats Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and U.S. Rep. Pete Geren of Fort Worth and other V-22 backers threatened to take Cheney to court if he didn’t start spending the money they’d allocated for the V-22. About that same time, the House Armed Services Committee, which included three members from Texas and two from Pennsylvania, voted to fund the Osprey. It added another special provision to make sure that Cheney got the message: For each month that Cheney refused to provide funding for the Osprey, the staff of Cheney’s Pentagon comptroller would be cut by 5 percent.
Three months later, in July of 1992, Cheney capitulated. But Dick Cheney is a stubborn man. And he made it clear that despite Congress’s view on the topic, he still hadn’t changed his mind on the value of the tilt-rotor.
In a letter to Senate Majority leader George Mitchell, Cheney said, “If the V-22 was unaffordable in 1989, it is even more unaffordable now…. I remain convinced that we can find lower cost alternatives to satisfy the needs of the armed forces for a medium-lift aircraft.” Cheney agreed to provide the funding for the V-22 but he also said that he wanted work to begin on an alternative, less expensive helicopter. In addition, he said that the final decision on whether to go forward with the Osprey should be decided by a future Congress. As soon as Cheney’s letter was written, Texas politicos sprang into action.
Chief among the lobbyists was Texas governor Ann Richards. She was helped by the change in administrations. As a candidate, Bill Clinton worked to differentiate himself from George H.W. Bush by making it clear that he supported the V-22 project. So, in early 1993, Richards flew to Washington to meet with Pentagon officials to make sure that they were going to continue funding the program. After meeting with new Defense Secretary Les Aspin in February of 1993, Richards told reporters that she was “sure glad to have someone in that office who is a friend of the V-22.” Richards made another trip to Washington a year later, to make sure that the V-22 was still on schedule. She met with the new defense secretary, William Perry, for more than three hours to talk about the project. She also met with Navy Secretary John Dalton, a man Richards described as “an enthusiastic supporter of the V-22.”
Throughout the latter part of the 1990s, with Richards’ pal Clinton in the White House, the V-22 was able to avoid most of the budget fights that had plagued it during the tenure of George H. W. Bush. Part of that was due to the fact that one of Bell’s lobbyists during that time was a certain former governor from Texas.
Shortly after the 1994 election, in which she was defeated by George W. Bush, Richards decided to follow the paved-with-gold revolving door and become yet-another-politician-turned-lobbyist. In 1996, Bell’s parent company Textron paid her $80,000 to work on its behalf. For the next few years, work continued on the V-22 and its lobbyists and backers began thinking they were pretty smart. That is, until it began killing lots of Marines.Lieutenant Colonel Keith Sweaney was known among his fellow Marines as “Mister V-22.” He was the Marines’ most experienced V-22 pilot. He directed the testing program for the aircraft and was scheduled to take command of the first operation squadron of V-22s in 2001. That command never arrived.
In December of 2000, while Sweaney was flying a V-22 in North Carolina, something went terribly wrong. Sweaney and three other Marines had taken the aircraft out for what should have been a routine night-flying testing mission. The weather was clear. Sweaney was flying at about 1,600 feet when he suddenly transmitted a one-word distress signal—”Mayday.” Sweaney was unable to give any details about what went wrong. About three minutes later, the aircraft crashed into the earth. All four men aboard were killed.
Before Sweaney’s death, the Marines had been able to blame the previous V-22 crashes on pilot error. In June 1991, one of the V-22’s development aircraft crashed, an incident later blamed on “miswiring of the flight control system.” It had crash-landed, on its side, during a test flight. Fortunately, the pilots involved in the crash were not seriously hurt. In July 1992, a V-22 was trying to land at Quantico Marine Base in Virginia when one of the engines caught fire. Death toll: three Marines, four civilian contractors. In August of 1992, another V-22 crashed. The crew survived, despite landing upside down on the tarmac of the Arlington Municipal Airport. The prototype crash was blamed on a maintenance error.
In April 2000, a V-22 crashed in Mirana, Arizona, during a night training exercise. The pilot of the machine lost control “during a high-sink-rate descent and was unable to regain control before hitting the ground in a nose-down inverted attitude.” The cause of the crash was a problem known as “vortex ring state.” Death toll: 19 Marines. (More on vortex ring state in a moment.) Eight months later, Sweaney’s aircraft crashed, an accident the Marines blamed on a combination of a hydraulic leak and a glitch in the flight control software.
None of those accidents would matter if taken separately. Every helicopter, every airplane, crashes. Pilots die. Passengers die. That’s part of the flying game. What is remarkable is that the V-22 has survived despite the death of Sweaney and so many other Marines.
But Sweaney’s death forced Bell to stop flying the tilt-rotor aircraft. Shortly afterward, the Defense Department appointed a special commission to review the V-22’s overall safety and reliability. But this commission was hardly independent and objective. The so-called “blue ribbon panel” was stocked with former Marines as well as Norman Augustine, the former chairman and CEO of weapons giant Lockheed Martin. When the panel released its report in 2001, it said that the military should continue developing the aircraft at low levels because it had shown that it could achieve many of the performance targets outlined by the Pentagon. But the panel also found that the V-22 “fell short of requirements for reliability, availability, and maintainability, suggesting that the aircraft and its logistics support system have not yet matured to the point of adequate supportability.” In other words, the V-22 might be a great aircraft, but it might be too finicky to be able to work properly.
Helicopters are inherently unstable machines. They crash far more often and are far more complicated than airplanes. The V-22 is designed to marry the helicopter with the airplane by executing a very, very difficult maneuver: Leave the earth in helicopter mode; while hovering the aircraft, rotate, in a very steady, predictable manner, two 6000-horsepower turbine engines, along with their rapidly spinning 38-foot-wide rotors, from the vertical position to the horizontal position. Do this while at the same time, keeping aloft an aircraft weighing about 50,000 pounds. Fly the machine for a while, then reverse the process: Return rotors to horizontal, and carefully land the aircraft in helicopter mode. Needless to say, these are not easy tricks.
Pulling the rabbit out of the hat means that the V-22 needs to use sophisticated hydraulic pumps and lines capable of holding pressures of 5,000 pounds per square inch. Those high-pressure lines are the ones responsible for getting the engine/rotor assembly to swivel around. If one of those lines ruptures—and the lines have proven to be failure-prone—the aircraft is likely to end up on the ground in a hurry. And then there are the V-22’s exotic materials. The V-22 is made almost entirely of composite materials (carbon-fiber and epoxy). Even the rotors are made out of the high-tech material, which is stronger, yet lighter, than steel. Only about 10 percent of the machine is made out of metal. Not surprisingly, all the exotic materials make the V-22 difficult to produce and maintain. And while all those things are important, the V-22 has another major problem: physics.
All helicopters are subject to a phenomenon called power settling, or in scientific jargon, vortex ring state. When rotorcraft hover in one place or are descending rapidly, they can be hit with a sudden loss of lift. The problem occurs because the rotors churn the air so thoroughly that the blades of the rotor lose their ability to “grip” the air, and provide lift. Helicopter pilots have been dealing with vortex ring state ever since the machines were invented. Pilots found that their machines, even operating at full power, could suddenly fall several dozen, or even several hundred feet, with little warning.
With helicopters, this problem can be overcome fairly easily. The pilot tilts the machine forward and flies out of the disturbed air column. If the pilot is too close to the ground to recover from vortex ring state, then the helicopter hits the ground. It hits hard, but the helicopter tends to stay upright and therefore, can land on its landing gear. That’s not the case with the V-22. In the V-22, vortex ring state usually affects one rotor or the other, not both. That’s bad. If one of the machine’s rotors suddenly cannot provide lifting power and the other rotor continues to provide lift, then the V-22 likes to roll over on its side or on its back, positions that are not conducive to safe flying, particularly if the earth is nearby. The DOD’s 2001 report on the V-22 said this “asymmetric vortex ring state” poses a “higher risk of adverse outcome if it happens at low altitude (wing-first impact for the tilt-rotor vs. hard landing for the helicopter).”
In this case, “adverse outcome” often means a smoldering ruin filled with dead people. Bell and the Pentagon claim that they have solved the problem with vortex ring state. But many critics of the aircraft say otherwise. The V-22’s excessive weight (more than 20 tons) and unusual design exacerbate the problems created by vortex ring state. “They can’t get away from the problem of vortex ring state,” says Franklin “Chuck” Spinney, a vocal gadfly who worked inside the Defense Department for 34 years before retiring in mid-2003. Spinney’s expertise was in tactical aircraft development and he gained a name for himself by throwing budgetary grenades at wasteful defense spending projects. Spinney insists that the V-22 is doomed by the problem of vortex ring state. “It’s physics,” says Spinney. “They can’t fix it. End of story.”
Spinney isn’t the only critic. Ivan Eland, a defense analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, has called the V-22 a “prime example of a failed defense acquisition system…. The Pentagon protects certain companies and manages what it euphemistically calls competition as rampant politics [and] pork projects.”
Perhaps the most dogged analysis of the V-22 has been done by a retired Air Force colonel named Harry Dunn. Now living in Virginia, Dunn heads a group of aviators and engineers known as the “red ribbon panel.” Dunn, a former helicopter pilot, has been investigating the aircraft for more than three years. The V-22 is “a crippled albatross, which will continue killing” unless it is stopped, says Dunn. A key problem is the V-22’s inability to perform what pilots call “autorotation”—that’s the ability of helicopters to glide to the earth in an emergency. If a helicopter’s engine fails or gets damaged by enemy fire, it can often land safely because as the helicopter descends, its rotor blades continue spinning. The spinning blades create lift, which slows the aircraft’s descent. The V-22’s design effectively prevents autorotation. That means that if the engines on a V-22 fail due to mishap or enemy action while hovering at low altitude, all of the occupants of the aircraft are much more likely to die.
From the outset, the Marines, Bell, and Boeing have taken the attitude of “let’s build the thing and then fix it later,” says Dunn. While Dunn and other Pentagon insiders fight the V-22 program, Bell and Boeing are working the halls of Congress. In 2000 (the last year for which figures are readily available), only 39 other companies spent more on lobbying in Washington than Textron. That year, Textron spent nearly $4.7 million on its lobby effort. According to the Center for Public Integrity, between 1997 and 2000, Textron spent $17.5 million lobbying members of Congress. Boeing was spending huge amounts of money, too. In 2000, Boeing spent $8.2 million on lobbying—more than any other defense contractor. That year, the company ranked number 14 among all companies lobbying that year and had 28 different lobby firms working in Washington. Those firms were in addition to 17 of Boeing’s in-house lobbyists. Between 1997 and 2000, Boeing spent almost $34.5 million on lobbying.
The lobbying appears to be paying off. Despite the fatal crashes, despite ongoing flight problems, despite the fact that the V-22 cannot carry a full load of 24 battle-ready soldiers, the airplane continues to get enormous amounts of taxpayer money. In his 2004 defense budget, the biggest since the end of the Cold War, President George W. Bush plans to spend another $1.1 billion to build 11 more V-22’s.
The money continues to flow despite astounding cost increases. In 1987, the Pentagon assumed it would purchase 913 V-22s at a cost of about $33.2 billion. The following year, the U.S. Army backed out of the V-22 program and the number of V-22s to be built declined to just over 600. By December of 2001, according to figures from the General Accounting Office, the number of aircraft had shrunk to 458 but the total cost of the program had increased to $42.6 billion. That means that the price per copy of the V-22 has gone from about $36 million in the early days of the program to about $100 million. It’s a good thing the V-22 doesn’t have toilet seats, or it might get really expensive.
Everest Riccioni, a retired Air Force colonel, is another V-22 critic. An aeronautical engineer, he was one of the midwives of the F-16, widely acknowledged as perhaps the best fighter aircraft ever built. In a study paid for by the Air Force, Riccioni found that the V-22 would be far less capable than the Marines were claiming and that the Corps was having trouble maintaining and keeping the V-22s ready to fly. Perhaps his most important finding was that a conventional, modern helicopter would be three times more cost-effective than the V-22. He also predicted that despite its love of the V-22, the Marine Corps “must inevitably buy a fleet of modern helicopters to make up for the Osprey’s many operational defects and shortcomings.”
Texas’s senior U.S. Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, doesn’t see any defects in the V-22. Hutchison may be the most powerful Texan in the U.S. Capitol when it comes to defense spending. A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and that committee’s powerful Defense Subcommittee, she is not overly worried about the V-22’s cost or safety issues. “I would never support anything wherever it was made if it couldn’t be found safe,” Hutchison told the Observer during a press conference in mid-May. “But in fact, the opposite is true…. The Marine Corps feels very confident that it is safe and I will not support it if it isn’t. But I am told that it is. And they are comfortable that they have found what the problem was.” She did not answer a question regarding the V-22’s cost.
Although Hutchison contends that the V-22’s problems have been fixed, it’s not at all clear that she’s right. Indeed, the aircraft continues to flounder in a testing program that began shortly after the fatal crash that killed Sweaney in 2000. Last November, as a V-22 was trying to land aboard a U.S. Navy ship, the aircraft became dangerously unstable, swinging rapidly from side to side. The oscillations continued until the pilot released the controls and allowed the V-22’s computer to take over the aircraft. In February of this year, a Bell spokesman, Bob Leder, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that the incident on the ship showed that “further refinements to the flight control software and hardware are necessary.” In March, a brand new V-22 flying from the Bell plant in Amarillo to North Carolina was forced to make an emergency landing at Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia after the aircraft’s emergency lubrication lights came on. The malfunction reportedly kept the aircraft grounded at the base for several days.
While the Marines try to sort through the V-22’s latest problems, workers continue building more of them. And that means that 2,000 jobs in Texas will continue: 1,500 of them at Bell’s plant on the east side of Fort Worth and another 500 jobs in Amarillo.
It might be the prettiest factory floor in America. Freshly painted a sleek gray, the shop floors at the Bell plant are immaculate. No scuff marks. No trash. No scratches. The walkways on the edge of the floor, and at regular intervals throughout the building, are painted a crisply contrasting navy blue. Everything is new, shiny, and clean as a dentist’s canines. The plant operates at a low hum, the quiet occasionally interrupted by a burst from a high-pitched drill. The workers appear happy. They’re well paid. Their jobs are challenging and require immense precision and attention to detail.
The economic development guys from Amarillo are in heaven. A group of out-of-town journalists are visiting the factory in May of 2003 to see what’s happening in Amarillo. The Bell plant is the city’s latest coup. This factory—on Tiltrotor Drive—a short distance from the main passenger terminal at Amarillo International Airport, is the city’s latest stab at diversification. Amarillo needs all the diversification it can get. The employment base in the city of 214,000 has always been rather narrow. On the eastern edge of town, separated by a dozen miles are so, lie two of the city’s biggest employers: the Tyson Foods slaughterhouse and the Pantex nuclear weapons plant.
Given the rather grisly nature of those two factories, it’s not surprising that the city was eager to find an industry with a bit more pizzazz. So in the late 1990s, after Bell announced it wanted to find a new place to assemble the aircraft, Amarillo got very interested. Bell wanted to get away from the unions in its Fort Worth-area factories. It also wanted a place where there’d be plenty of room to fly the V-22s it was producing.
Amarillo has plenty of airspace and a long military history. During World War II, the Pentagon built Amarillo Army Airfield to train pilots. It later became a U.S. Air Force base, which hosted a fleet of B-52s that were part of the Strategic Air Command, the agency in charge of defending the skies during the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the B-52s and the Strategic Air Command flew away, leaving behind acres of good hangar space and miles of sturdy runways that were perfect for hosting airplanes. Plus, Bell had been in Amarillo before. From 1968 through 1989, Bell operated a helicopter overhaul and modification plant in some of those same B-52 hangars. Hueys that had been shot up in Vietnam were taken to Amarillo for refurbishing.
Yes, an aircraft assembly plant was just what Amarillo needed to boost its image. Not only would the new business be high-profile, there were unlikely to be a bunch of striking slaughterhouse workers picketing in front of the plant, like there were at Tyson. Nor would there be any radical environmentalist-types complaining about the evils of plutonium and nuclear weapons. The Bell plant would be different, an opportunity to put Amarillo in a different light. So the city of Amarillo pulled out all the stops. It put on its best lipstick and tightest pair of blue jeans and set out to lasso the new Bell plant. The city showed Bell that it had plenty of space for flying (that’s an understatement). It had plenty of non-union workers. It had rock-bottom cost-of-living. And it could offer an even bigger plum: a brand-new, $40 million custom-built factory that wouldn’t cost Bell a dime. Bell looked around. More than 1,000 municipalities from across the U.S. expressed interest in hosting Bell’s new plant. Bell narrowed the list down to eight finalists. Every one of the finalists was in Texas. Bell saw that it could move to Amarillo for free—and did just that.
But the real reason Bell chose Amarillo, it appears, was politics. “The V-22 stayed in Texas because it needed Congressional support,” a Bell executive told the Dallas Morning News in late 2000. “We had support from politicians.”
The new plant in Amarillo has meant 500 new jobs for the city, and in a place like Amarillo, that’s a big deal. Each of the new jobs pays an average of $20 per hour, a good wage on the high plains of Texas. All 500 of those jobs will undoubtedly bolster Bell’s clout. As Spinney sees it, “the plant in Amarillo only increases the momentum behind the V-22.”
But all of the political support for the V-22 still can’t hide the fact that it is not cost-effective. Each aircraft now costs over $100 million and that doesn’t include the cost of modifications that may have to be made to it in the future as testing finds new flaws. Furthermore, two helicopters now in production could easily fill the role the Marines envision for the V-22. They are the S-92, made by Sikorsky, and the larger US-101, made by the European consortium, AgustaWestland.
The twin-engine S-92 weighs about half what the V-22 does, and yet can carry similar payloads. It has a top speed of 175 miles per hour and can travel over 500 miles without refueling. It has a bigger cabin than the V-22 and it has proven to be far safer. In late 2002, the S-92 got its federal flight certification, meaning federal authorities have found the helicopter to be safe enough to enter regular commercial service. Sikorsky is selling the S-92 for about $20 million per copy. Thus, for the cost of one V-22, the U.S. military could buy five S-92s.
The US-101 would also fill the Marines’ needs. The three-engine aircraft is exactly the type of aircraft that Dick Cheney envisioned in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he was trying to kill the V-22: a medium-life helicopter built with familiar technology that was reliable and relatively inexpensive. Now in use in Canada, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom, the US-101 is a military-ready helicopter that has proven to be reliable, easily maintained, and safe. The US-101 is lighter than the V-22, has a far bigger cabin and can fly nearly 800 miles without refueling. And there’s another fact that Dick Cheney would love: The US-101 was developed without spending a single dime of American taxpayers’ money. In addition, the US-101 is cheaper—a lot cheaper—than the V-22. For the cost of one V-22, the Pentagon could buy four US-101s.
Despite all of their performance, safety, and cost advantages, the S-92 and the US-101 are both fatally flawed—that’s right, they’re not from Texas.
And finally, what does Dick Cheney think about the V-22 these days? Well, Kevin Kellums, the vice president’s spokesman, said in a recent email that he is “not aware of any time the VP has taken a position on the V-22 since his tenure as Sec of Def ended.”
Hmmm. Imagine that.
Contributing writer Robert Bryce’s new book is Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate.