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LEXINGTON PARK, Md. (AP) _ An overhauled V-22 Osprey took a modest first flight Wednesday, 18 months after the military grounded the Marine Corps' helicopter-plane hybrid because of two fatal crashes.

Pilots hovered the tilt-rotor aircraft up to 30 feet above the runway and conducted maneuvers at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, the first in more than a year of planned testing before the V-22 is eligible for duty.

While the Osprey has the ability to take off like a helicopter, rotate its propellers 90 degrees and fly like an airplane, it stayed in helicopter mode during its first flight.

A cheering crowd of 200 technicians, engineers and military officials watched the V-22 take off.

``It's gone well beyond our expectations,'' Marine Col. Dan Schultz, the V-22 program manager, said after the plane performed a series of turns.

The military will test seven modified V-22s at the station and four at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert.

Pilots will take the planes through a series of maneuvers, including fast descents, to determine whether changes in hydraulic systems and other modifications have corrected problems that led to the crashes.

The Marine Corps hopes to replace its aging fleet of assault helicopters with the Osprey, and has set its sights on having the V-22 in service by December 2003, Schultz said.

Built by Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopters Textron, each V-22 costs $89.7 million. Only 20 have been built so far.

The entire fleet was grounded in 2000 after two crashes during training flights. A crash in December 2000 killed four Marines in Jacksonville, N.C., and 19 Marines died when a V-22 crashed in Arizona in April 2000.

An investigation found several Marine officers doctored maintenance records to exaggerate the aircraft's readiness. Two officers received letters of reprimand in September.

One of the crashes was attributed to vortex ring state, a phenomenon that can cause an aircraft to lose altitude quickly. Schultz said changes had been made to alert pilots to conditions that could lead to vortex ring state.

V-22 pilots will be trained to maneuver out of VRS situations, and technicians have also changed the V-22's hydraulic system to prevent failures caused by chafed hydraulic lines, he said.

``The indications are that this aircraft can handle VRS better than any airplane and any helicopter out there,'' Schultz said.

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On the Net:

Marine Osprey: http://pma275.navair.navy.mil