Air Force said ready to deploy its new V-22s

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force’s new tilt-rotor aircraft did so well on operational tests that a top general is ready to send them on a mission before the official “combat-ready” deadline of February 2009, two sources familiar with the testing told Reuters on Tuesday.

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ), left, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), right, make their way across the flight line after landing on a CV-22 Osprey at Sather Air Base in Baghdad, March 16, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Allen/Handout

The Air Force plans to buy 50 of the new CV-22 aircraft built by Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron TXT.N and Boeing Co BA.N. The V-22 or Osprey is a hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter but flies like a plane.

The Marine Corps has been flying its version, the MV-22, in Iraq since October last year. Officials plan to discuss on Friday the aircraft’s good performance in Iraq.

The Pentagon signed a $10.4 billion agreement with Bell and Boeing last month to buy 167 V-22s through 2012. It also asked for funding of five V-22s in an special war funding request being considered by Congress.

Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, who heads Air Force Special Operations Command, told industry and military officials at a dinner on Monday evening that he was pleased with the performance of the CV-22 during initial operational tests that ended last Friday, one of the sources said.

Wurster said he wouldn’t hesitate to use the aircraft in combat now if they were needed for a special mission, given their performance on the realistic operational tests, said one of the sources, who asked not to be named.

The aircraft is not due to reach “initial operating capability” until February 2009.

The Air Force is now assessing data from the operational flight tests, according to Jamie Darcy, spokesman for the V-22 program office.

Darcy declined comment on Wurster’s remarks, but said the program office would be ready to support the aircraft with spare parts and maintenance backup if the Air Force decided to send them on a mission sooner than expected.

The Air Force has four CV-22s that it could send into combat, plus four training and one test aircraft, he said.

The Air Force plans to use its CV-22s for special operations missions, which would involve flying small groups of special operations forces into and out of enemy territory.

To allow it to do such long-range infiltration, the Air Force version of the V-22 has special equipment that allows it to fly very low to the ground, at night and in all kinds of weather -- enabling it to avoid detection by enemy radar.

It also has additional equipment to protect it against heat-seeking missiles and radar-guided missiles.

The Marine Corps uses the aircraft mainly to fly large numbers of troops over long distances at high speed, so it does not have the same equipment as the Air Force aircraft.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for the capability of the aircraft,” said one source, noting it was unusual for the military to offer to put a new aircraft into combat before it had been formally certified for initial operating capability.

“It’s such a leap in capabilities above what anybody can do with a conventional helicopter that there’s definitely missions out there waiting for it,” the source said. “People have a lot of good ideas about how this aircraft could potentially be used.”

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Tim Dobbyn