testing program is moving ahead smoothly, a local commander said.
Developmental test pilots recently surpassed the 1,000-flight-hour mark since the Osprey's return to the air and sea trials on amphibious assault ship decks.
Up next will be formation flying and air-to-air refueling before evaluators formally look at their progress again, said Col. Glenn M. Walters, commander of the Marine Tilt Rotor Test and Evaluation Squadron 22 at New River Marine Corps Air Station, adjacent to Camp Lejeune.
The V-22 is a hybrid design with fixed wings and propellers that can tilt upward so the craft can take off and land like a helicopter, then rotate forward so it can fly like an airplane. The Marines want the Osprey to replace the aging fleet of CH-46 Sea Knight transport helicopters.
The $40 billion program has been plagued by design flaws and other problems.
Nineteen Marines were killed in an April 2000 crash in Arizona. That December, an Osprey crashed in a forest near Jacksonville, killing the four Marines aboard.
The aircraft was grounded after that crash, just days before the Navy was scheduled to decide whether to move the V-22 into full production. In addition, the commander of the Osprey unit in North Carolina ordered his unit to falsify maintenance records to make the V-22 look more reliable.
The Arizona crash was triggered by an aerodynamic situation called vortex ring state, which can occur when a rotorcraft descends too quickly while moving slowly forward, losing lift due to its own rotor turbulence.
The North Carolina crash was caused by a leak in the hydraulic lines, compounded by faulty flight control software.
Officials have said improvements have been made, and the aircraft returned to the air last year.
The tiltrotor aircraft hailed as the future of Marine Corps flight operations returned to a North Carolina base in August to resume formal evaluation and testing.
Walters said there will probably be a "quick-look" operational assessment of the aircraft around April or May. The squadron will receive more Ospreys in the coming months, and operational evaluation could begin by the end of 2004, Walters said.
Walters said he likes the Osprey's new, two-panel pilot position, making days of constantly scanning every 3-inch gauge in the cockpit a thing of the past.
"There used to be 3-inch gauges stuck all over the cockpit," Walters said. "(Now) it just looks clean, and it means I can do my job faster, better and safer."
But some of the biggest improvements are intangible, such as morale of those working on the program and their families.
"They're very excited," Walters said. "Normally, you have to go look for someone from avionics to swap something out (on an aircraft). When I took my first flight, I probably had 60 maintenance personnel watching me come in."
For many in the area, seeing the Osprey flying again brings back reminders of the fatal crash here in 2000. But Don Decker, a fire marshal who responded to the crash scene, said he does not think flying the aircraft poses additional risk.
"Shoot, I would rather see the plane fly," he said. "I don't look at it as being any more dangerous than any of the other aircraft out there."
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