Hunter's Folly

The Congress has thankfully cut off funding for the DP-2, a plane that never flew and cost taxpayers $63 million.

The DP-2 program was a bad idea that refused to go away. It has been funded for nearly 20 years exclusively by earmarks from congressman and presidential aspirant Duncan Hunter. DuPont Aerospace, the company that developed the plane, was based in El Cajon, California in the heart of Hunter’s district.

It was only a matter of time before someone got killed trying to fly this thing. The DP-2 suffered four mishaps in the past four years. In November 2004, a test pilot struck the ceiling of the cockpit as the cabin floor cracked and the aircraft filled with hot exhaust. He exited through the cabin window because the door had been jammed shut.

Tony DuPont dreamed up the concept of a jet that could hover and fly backwards in the 1960s. In the 1980s, he convinced Hunter that the DP-2 could ferry small teams of special operations forces in and out of remote war zones.

Government officials rejected the concept, but Hunter insisted on seeing it through. Report after report came out detailing the deep misgivings that unbiased government engineers had with the project. And year after year, Hunter continued earmarking money for the DP-2. He requested another $6 million this year.

Finally, in June, the House Committee on Science and Technology convened an unusual hearing to find out what the government was getting for its money. The hearing got little attention in the press, but here are some highlights:

John Eney, a Navy aerospace engineer, recalled how disturbed he was during a 1999 visit to duPont’s test platform at a small commercial airport in El Cajon, California:

“That platform was permanently located on the public airport property, less than 30 feet from the chain-link fence on the boundary between the airport property and a public thoroughfare including sidewalks, office and automobile parking in the city of El Cajon. The risk to off-airport property and pedestrian traffic was immense and of little apparent concern to duPont Aerospace.”

Also disturbing to Eney were duPont’s plans to use an ejection seat commandeered by “suspect means” from an F-14:

“That ‘free gift’ F-14 ejection seat was simply plopped into the DP-2 cockpit area with over a foot or more of the seat head box protruding well above the top of the enclosed cabin structure. This was unexplained by duPont management when challenged.”

Several witnesses said that while the DP-2 might be a good idea worth exploring, duPont Aerospace was not the company to do it. Tony duPont is the company’s president, his brother, Rex, is vice president and his wife, Carol, is director of administration. Tony did not like hearing he was wrong, as a former duPont engineer testified:

“The general rule of thumb was, Tony gets his way.”

Whatever merits the DP-2 concept had were doomed by mismanagement, poor morale, bad engineering judgments. DuPont even billed the government $1,700 for polo shirts with the company’s logo, $2,000 for an annual picnic and $3,000 for a family vacation on a cruise ship.

Duncan Hunter appeared blind to the problem:

Although the Pentagon may not have a firm requirement for something and may not have requested funds for it, my job is to listen to our warfighters, to set a vision, and to help the warfighter get the best tools possible to do his or her job. I am willing to take some risks to get there.

If that really was Hunter’s motivation, if the DP-2 was indeed critically important to our armed forces, he should have been the first to recognize that Tony duPont was not the man for the job. He should have worked to ensure that the plane was built by a company with the wherewithal to get the job done.

Sadly, Hunter’s motive seems to have been to help out a friend and keep jobs in his district, and that does not augur well of the leadership abilities of a man who is seeking your vote for president.

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