DALLAS - If this were a typical year, and if the V-22 Osprey were a typical program, the helicopter-airplane hybrid built by Bell Helicopter and Boeing Helicopters could be in big trouble after a deadly crash yesterday.
But the politically popular V-22 is hardly a typical program. For four years, unflinching support in Congress has enabled the Osprey to survive the determined efforts of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to kill it.
And this is an election year, with an incumbent president facing a tough contest that could hinge on winning Texas and Pennsylvania - the two states with the most jobs riding on continued development of the V-22. The states also harbor the two congressional delegations leading the fight to keep the Osprey alive.
Flight testing of the V-22 has been suspended, pending an investigation of the crash. But unless the probe concludes the mishap was caused by a design flaw, the accident - the second V-22 crash in 13 months - will probably do little more than delay the Osprey research and development program, defense and congressional analysts said.
In the latest incident, a V-22 prototype crashed yesterday into the Potomac River short of a runway near the Marine Corps Air Station at Quantico, Va. All seven people aboard are presumed to be dead, officials said.
"It sounds callous, but these things happen," said Mike Lofgren, a defense analyst on the staff of Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, a congressman whose opposition to the V-22 program has changed to quiet support in the past year.
"It'll be a setback - it's never a good thing when a plane crashes, just because of bad publicity. But the congressional delegations that support the V-22 aren't going to support it less because of this. I really don't see this as a show-stopper."
Another crucial factor in the V-22 equation is the White House attitude toward the program - a sentiment that has shifted from opposition to lukewarm support in recent months, analysts said.
"The president could lose support in those states (Texas and Pennsylvania) by opposing the V-22 in an election year," Lofgren said. He added that "there's no doubt" the softening opposition of the White House toward the Osprey stems from election concerns.
Bell Helicopter officials are cautious in their assessment of the V-22's future prospects after the latest accident. "It's a good question, but it's hard to speculate on what will happen," said Terry Arnold, V-22 spokesman for Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth.