WASHINGTON -- A congressional investigative committee summoned Army aviation officials to testify about a frequently grounded fleet of helicopters plagued with questions about reliability and safety.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee planned Thursday to focus on the CH-47D Chinook helicopter, an upgrade of a 30-year-old Boeing model designed to carry troops and cargo.
It has been grounded 10 times, five times in 1989. Fifteen soldiers have been killed in two accidents involving the helicopter.
A recent report by General Accounting Office investigators assigned to the oversignt panel was 'nothing less than indictment' of the aircraft, said subcommittee Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., in a letter to Army Secretary Michael Stone.
'Various fixes do not appear to have been successful, and there is no assurance that the aircraft is safe or reliable enough to perform its mission,' said Dingell.
The report cited a number of Chinook mechanical and design problems and noted the helicopter is hurt by the Army's shortage of trained maintenance personnel.
Investigators said in the report that aviation unit mechanics are routinely required to work nights and weekends to keep up with basic maintenance. Some personnel reported that 'these staff and time shortages have led to flying unsafe aircraft.'
Chinook mechanial problems have included the seizure and explosion of fans used to cool transmission oil, cracked bolts holding the transmission to the airframe and cracks in the drive shaft, which links the engines with transmission parts.
The drive shaft has been redesigned and the Army has replaced aluminum flight control rods with stainless steel rods after it was found the aluminum parts burned through in fires.
The report said that the aviation command's 'failure to take aggressive, remedial action in dealing with these problems has served only to compound and perpetuate them.
'This reactive posture most likely led to needless loss of lives. It has surely undermined the confidence of already overburdened troops who cannot help but wonder, 'When will the next disaster occur and how many years will it take to fix it?''
The report recommended the Army present convincing evidence that problems have been resolved before more money is spent on the project.
Other than mechanical flaws, mission commanders, pilots and crews 'expressed a loss of confidence' in the Chinook in talks with GAO investigators, the report said.
The Army plans to buy a total of 472 Chinooks to complement the current fleet of 290. The aircraft are expected to cost about $6.4 million each.