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Thu, Jun 14, 2007

California Lawmaker Defends Funding Of Problematic Plane

Project Has Received $63M In Earmarks Over Almost Two Decades

On paper, it looks really good. An inexpensive VTOL plane with a range of 5,000 miles and a top speed of 700 mph, capable of carrying 48 fully armed soldiers and a Humvee. What general wouldn't want to have seen such a tool on the battlefield?

Turns out, all of them. The DP-2, made by duPont Aerospace, has been funded by Congress since 1988 and has yet to even fly higher than a few feet. It has risen off a trailer during tethered flights, before settling back down hard. The military has long held it would never live up to the company's claims, and it never even wanted the aircraft in the first place.

Congress has been funding this aircraft's development since its inception even after failing test after test... and the Pentagon has repeatedly questioned its feasibility and criticized the contractor's work, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The project's staunchest supporter and guaranteed funding source is Duncan Hunter (R-CA) who has been forced to defend his stubborn refusal to stop earmarking funds for a program that apparently has no merit as the program has come under close scrutiny in recent weeks.

According to the Associated Press, not only did the Pentagon decline to invest money in the DP-2, so did NASA. But Congress, under the guidance and insistence of Hunter, has shelled out $63 million dollars in support so far despite studies by NASA and the Pentagon finding fault with the whole project. He is proposing an additional $6 million for the 2008 fiscal year.

Hunter, a 2008 Republican presidential nomination hopeful, has been rewarded for his decades-long support with $36,000 in campaign contributions, as reported by ABC News. Hunter calls allegations of impropriety a "cheap shot."

"I think it's worth it to every Marine in Afghanistan and every Marine in Iraq to try to do the very best we can to develop good technology," said Hunter  (right). "I do what I think is right for the country."

"This project is just fraught with problems," responds North Carolina Representative Brad Miller, who chaired a hearing on the DP-2's continued funding by the House Science and Technology Committee's investigations and oversight subcommittee. "Should we continue to fund this, or is there an accountability by Congress?"

Hunter says the DP-2's concept is "extremely difficult to achieve but extremely valuable."

"The Pentagon doesn't come up with every great idea," said Hunter.

"There's not a bird on the runway today ... that we developed in four years," he said. "You don't develop anything in four years."

Miller notes the aircraft "is still not operational and has never received a positive technical review in more than 20 years. Congress appears to have permitted the DP-2 program to become a hobby, not a serious research project."

This situation is bringing earmarks back into the public eye. Earmarks are line items that are inserted by individual congressmen into a spending bill that requires no public debate, discussion or disclosure. They are used to fund things like new roads or defense contracts to benefit their constituents.

Hunter defended earmarks, saying they play a "vital role" in research and development projects, according to ABC News. "A lot of them fail, but a few of them break through, and the ones that break through prove of great value," said Hunter.

Hunter has sponsored earmarks for DuPont before, as well as for many other San Diego-based defense contractors and was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

California Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican member of the House Science and Technology Committee, hailed duPont president Tony duPont as "a respected engineer" and "a maverick."

"When we come to the point where we don't (give) mavericks and free thinkers the chance to prove their theories, we're putting a great limitation on what our potential is for the future," said Rohrabacher.

John Eney is an aerospace engineer who headed up the aircraft conceptual design group at the Naval Air Development Center Naval Air Systems Command. He led an onsite review of the DP-2 program in 1999.

"It's a pipe dream," he said.

In order to have the promised VTOL capabilities, the aircraft directs jet exhaust toward the ground. Eney says this would incinerate troops rappelling out of the aircraft.

Hunter "failed to understand the basic physics of this situation," he said.

DuPont also testified at the hearing through a video link from San Diego. He disputes this line of thought, saying the jet exhaust would have a "low enough temperature" that to troops exiting the aircraft it would be "like wading in a trout stream."

"To continue to fund it would be an insult to the aerospace industry at large and to the taxpayers," Eney testified.

The general consensus of witnesses who testified before the panel was duPont was no closer to delivering on the promises made about the DP-2 than it was in 1988. "There have been four accidents in the last four years," said Miller. "The good news is that when it crashes, it only crashes from a foot or two off the ground."



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