The commander of the Marines' tilt-rotor aircraft program, Lt. Col. Odin Fred Leberman, was suspended last week, but only after a whistle-blower revealed evidence of attempts to cover up problems with the V-22 Osprey, a military aircraft on the cutting edge of technology.
The Osprey commander admitted to his superiors that he told his subordinates to falsify repair records.
Two training accidents last year involving the Osprey claimed 21 lives. While those deaths have not been attributed to this deception, the whistle-blower closely involved with the project says more could occur "if it [falsification of records] continues."
Sadly, this incident appears to be yet another case of the penchant for military secrecy going too far. Remember the coverup of Tailhook, the 1992 naval-aviator, sexual-harassment scandal involving hundreds of witnesses, and not one conviction?
It also shows how military training to obey orders can be manipulated to hide the truth in a bad situation.
The Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter, but fly like a plane. It can fly faster and longer than conventional helicopters. If it finally works as planned, it would replace an aging helicopter fleet for the Marines.
But safety questions suggest its uses may be more limited than advertised. And it could end up being a boondoggle, although difficult to eliminate altogether because it's so far along in development, and has mostly received support from Capitol Hill.
Following a second crash of an Osprey last December, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen appointed a panel to review the $40 billion project.
The new Defense chief, Donald Rumsfeld, has acted quickly by approving a Marine Corps request for the Pentagon to take control of the investigation. Now he must help decide the future of this craft, while bringing more accountability to the program and using this incident as a lesson to others who might be tempted or influenced to deceive.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society