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The Osprey as Phoenix

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  • The Osprey as Phoenix

    Published in the November 2005 issue of Proceedings. Article is not available online and was reproduced as published.

    The Osprey as Phoenix

    Richard Whittle

    Osprey advocates regard the V-22 as the most revolutionary development in flight since the jet engine: an aircraft that can take off, land, hover, and maneuver like a helicopter but also fly like an airplane. Doubters see a Rube Goldberg contraption whose design and history make them shudder. Read on.

    The Osprey program has seen so many ups and downs during its two decades of development, however, that nothing is certain. Two crashes during its earlier development set the program back years, as did a stubborn but unsuccessful campaign in the early 1990s by Vice President Dick Cheney, then defense secretary, to cancel it as part of a defense spending rollback. Inded, the Osprey has been near death so many times that wags long ago suggested it be renamed "Phoenix," for the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes.

    For the moment, however, the Phoenix is rising again. The Osprey seems to have vanquished critics who said it was aerodynamically unsound and wouldn't be able to perform to specification. On 28 September 2005, after five years of redesign and more than 8,500 hours of flight testing, the V-22 finally got off probation. The Defense Acquisition Board, a panel of high-level Pentagon officials, approved full rate production of the Osprey. After the crashes in 2000, Congress capped V-22 purchases at 11 aircraft a year to keep the Bell-Boeing production lines going. Under current plans, which call for the Marines to buy 360 to replace Vietnam-era CH-46 helicopters and the Air Force to get 50 for special operations, the production rate is to ramp up to 48 a year by 2012, but a lot are already out there.

    VMX-22, the test and training squadron, already had 27 as of 1 September. Nine others were being used for developmental testing - three CV-22s at Edwards Air Force Base, California and six MV-22s at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland. Four more Ospreys at New River and 10 at Bell's Osprey assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas are in storage until they can be reconfigured to deployable standards. And Bell-Boeing is to deliver the first MV-22 to VMM-263, the first fleet squadron, in December. Initial operational capability is scheduled for 2007.

    Even friendly critics question the Osprey's cost. The current sticker price is $71 million, and while program officials aim to get that down to $58 million by 2010, replacing the Marines' troop transport helicopters with tiltrotors will remain an expensive proposition. At a time when the costs of war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina are leading to calls for cuts in the defense budget, V-22 advocates still have their work cut out for them in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

    But Marines who've ridden the Osprey, from grunts to generals, are eager to use it in real-world operations.

    "It can get us to the fight quicker and quieter," said Fallujah veteran Sergeant William Leo, 28, one of the Marines who rode in the MV-22s at New River, last July. "Some guys would say,'I don't want to ride in it,' but this ain't the only helicopter that's ever gone down."

    Lieutenant Gen. James N. Mattis, deputy commandant for combat development, who commanded the I Marine Expeditionary Brigade and Task Force 58 in Afghanistan in 2003, said the Taliban might have collapsed more quickly if MV-22s had been available to get his Marines into the fight.

    "If I had the MV-22s in the North Arabian Sea, I'd have gone straight to Kandahar, I wouldn't have had to have gone for a month out in the desert to orchestrate things," he said in a sidelines interview at a recent "Future of the Marine Corps" conference held by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. As it was, the Marines had to hop-scotch their way into Afghanistan by helicopter, landing at night in Pakistan to avoid stirring up domestic unrest.

    Lieutenant General John F. Sattler, U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. commander at Fallujah, told the same conference that the Osprey could make a big difference in a place like Iraq's Al Anbar Province, where "You've got a Marine Expeditionary Force covering an area about the size of the state of North Carolina with about 1,100 kilometers of border ... I've love to have it," he said. "I'd like to have it right now."

    A Little History

    The heaviest baggage the Osprey carries is historical: the public memory of two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 Marines.

    The worst occurred in April of that year during operational testing at Marana, Arizona, where an MV-22 taking part in a simulated rescue mission went down, killing the crew of four and 15 Marines. An investigation determined that the pilot in the nighttime exercise had overshot his descent point but tried to salvage the approach. He brought the aircraft down fast, exceeding the flight manual sink-rate limit of 800 feet per minute at speeds of 40 knots or less. Descending at more than 2,000 feet per minute, one of the Osprey's rotors went into a condition known as vortex ring state (VRS), in which a rotor blade descends into its own downwash and loses lift. With the other blade still lifting, the Osprey rolled at too low an altitude to recover and plunged into the ground.

    The other crash that year occurred in December at New River, where an MV-22 assigned to VMMT-204, the Marine Corps tiltrotor training squadron, suffered a hydraulic line failure and a flight-control software glitch during a night instrument approach. All four crew members perished.

    A "Blue Ribbon Panel" subsequently convened to determine whether the tiltrotor concept and the V-22 design itself were worth pursuing. On 30 April 2001, the panel reported to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the answer to both questions was "Yes." General John R. Dailey, a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot and four-star general who has also been a top NASA official and now heads the National Air and Space Museum, concluded: "The Panel found no evidence of an inherent safety flaw in the V-22 tiltrotor concept."

    Bell-Boeing and the Naval Air Systems Command redesigned the hydraulic lines and flight control software during the following year. And on 29 May 2002 - 17 months after it had last flown - the Osprey took to the sky once again at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. For the next thre years, test pilots for Bell, Boeing, and the Naval Air Systems Command flew 1,303 sorties (2,686 hours) studying the V-22's flight characteristics.

    After the Marana accident, critics had said that the wingtip placement of the Osprey's prop-rotors made it inherently likely to go into VRS - from which it would be unable to recover. They argued that while a helicopter that goes into VRS might recover by autorotating - cutting power and getting enough lift from the freewheeling rotor blades to cushion the landing - the V-22 would be unable to do that. V-22 program test pilots, however, found that the tiltrotor does have a way to escape VRS: The pilot simply tilts the rotors forward 15 degrees for two seconds and flies out of it. Tom McDonald, the chief corporate test pilot at the time, and others repeatedly tested the technique by taking V-22s to high altitudes and intentionally putting them into VRS. To make it easier for the pilot to recognize when the aircraft is at risk of VRS, the program has installed a cockpit sink-rate warning device - a "*****ing Betty" and a flashing vertical speed indicator. When I asked Hough about the issue at New River last July, he told me that VRS "... is all yesterday's history. Helicopters have the same problem. Here's the beauty of this thing: you can fly out of it in less than a second. The aerodynamics are all different. It's not a helicopter, like everybody thought."

    Onward and Upward

    There remain enough skeptics that the Marines and Naval Air Systems Command, which runs the $50.5 billion program, invited the media to New River last July to take a spin. The media day was officially scheduled to report on what program officials described as stunningly successful results in operational testing and evaluation (OT&E) of the MV-22 by VMX-22, the Osprey test squadron at New River, from April through June of this year. But Lieutenant General Michael Hough, U.S. Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, acknowledged as we gathered on the tarmac that the day was also intended to "prove to the American public that their sons and daughters are safe flying this airplane."

    July 13 was a muggy, cloudy day on the central North Carolina coast, home to Marine Corps Air Station New River and nearby Camp Lejeune. Thunderstorms were in the forecast. But two MV-22 Ospreys were hovering over the airfield as I and about 50 other reporters and photographers arrived at MCAS New River to become the first non-government civilians to ride on the long-awaited, much-debated "tiltrotor" troop transport.

    The first event on the agenda during Media Day at New River last July was a simulated MV-22 combat drop of a couple of squads of Marines onto a grassy area just off the tarmac next to a hangar that houses VMX-22, a test squadron formed in August 2003 to conduct OT&E of the Osprey.

    We saw the two MV-22s before we heard them, zooming into sight from behind the hangar to our northwest in airplane mode. The churning of their rotors became audible only as they closed to within 150 yards or so and made a pass over the field. Soon they returned with their rotors up in helicopter mode, and then they were loud. Swinging out over the grass, the Ospreys quickly slowed and settled to the ground. Their ramps yawned open and the squads of Marines poured out, ran a few yards and dropped to the ground, weapons at the ready. One after the other, the MV-22s lifted off, rotors at an angle, and seemed to vault into the sky at a 45-degree angle. They were out of the zone in seconds, tilting their rotors more and more horizontal while circling the field. Then they made another pass at top speed, flying by like airplanes, but far quieter.

    I caught up with Hough as the flight demonstration ended. I told him I was looking forward to finally riding in the V-22 after so many years of covering it.

    "You've ridden in a helicopter?" he asked.

    "Sure," I said.

    "You're gonna say, 'Holy #%&*!'" he promised.

    The next order of business was a briefing in the VMX-22 ready room. Colonel Glenn "Bluto" Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, the squadron commander, and Air Force Colonel Craig Olson, the program manager, offered the following to rebut critics who still insist the Osprey can't perform as promised.

    -Flying a mock amphibious pre-assault raid with a 230 nautical mile radius, 30 miles more than required.

    -Carrying a lightweight howitzer externally for 69 nautical miles, 19 miles farther than the performance parameter.

    -Cruising at 255 knots, 15 knots faster than the goal.

    -Flying 2,660 nautical miles with one aerial refueling, 560 miles more than required.

    Critics contend that the downdraft from the Osprey's twin rotors is so powerful that troops would not be able to fast-rope out and the V-22 would be unable to land safely in the desert. But Walters showed videos in which troops roped down from a hovering Osprey's rear ramp and an Osprey set down in the Arizona desert, disappearing into a cloud of sand as it did but landing without incident.

    Walters said only three deficiencies were found:

    -All 1,000 frequencies of the SINGCARS radio couldn't be used because some interfered with the Osprey's software. Colonel Olson said the program was working on a fix.

    -The Marine infantrymen who flew in the tests didn't like the car-like seatbelts installed on the MV-22s passenger seats because their combat gear sometimes got caught up in the shoulder harness. New seat belts are being designed.

    -The APR-30 radar warning receiver manifested a problem whose nature, while classified, is not unique to the V-22.

    Thanks to some advance wheedling, I was in the first stick in the lead aircraft of the day's first two-Osprey flight. My stick included CNN's senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, his photographer, and a CNN producer; three other print reporters who have also covered the V-22 for years; and two representatives from NavAir and Bell-Boeing. As we turned in waiver forms absolving the Marine Corps of any liability if things went badly, Walters told us he would be eager to hear our impressions as the first non-government civilians to ride a V-22.

    "Before or after we stop throwing up?" quipped the ever-witty McIntyre. They were prophetic words.

    The first surprise was how little downdraft we felt after we strapped on our cranials and walked at a 45-degree angle to the rear ramp of our MV-22, whose rotors were vertical and churning. The only wind we could feel was around our ankles. Another surprise was how little vibration we felt once we were seated and strapped in. Unlike some helicopters, the V-22s rotors don't "whump, whump" loudly and the fuselage doesn't shudder as the aircraft idles on the tarmac.

    With all aboard, our pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher "Mongo" Seymour tilted the rotors forward a couple of degrees and taxied us out to the runway. Soon after we rolled onto the runway, our Osprey picked up speed and slowly lifted off the ground. Then the rotors roared and we shot into the sky with a drag-racer burst of acceleration that made me think back on what Hough had predicted.

    The ground fell away through the rear ramp and we were quickly up to 500 feet. The second MV-22 trailed us, swinging back and forth across our tail to give CNN's photographer some good video. We zoomed over boats and a bridge, reaching the coast in minutes. As we did, Seymour banked hard left, then leveled off and cruised northward at speed over Onslow Beach, where Marines from Camp Lejeune practice amphibious landings.

    Another few minutes and Seymour put our MV-22 into a 2-g left turn that glued me to the bulkhead as we circled south for the return trip down the beach. We headed back inland, cruising over coastal marshlands, then the Osprey began decelerating nearly as quickly as it had gained speed and started descending. We cleared some tall pines, came into a near-hover and quickly came to a landing in a grassy landing zone (LZ).

    Lifting off again, we circled in place, 50 or 60 feet above the ground, turning slowly until we could see the other Osprey out the rear ramp as it completed the same maneuver. We hovered for a moment, then maneuvered to the right a dozen yards, then back to the left and came back to a stationary hover. The fuselage suddenly tilted upward, the Osprey's engines whined loudly and we rocketed into a steep and rapid climb, gaining enough altitude that my ears popped.

    As we did, I looked over at my friend and saw that he hadn't really been kidding. Just in time, one of the crew chiefs handed him an airsick bag, which Jamie put to good use as we leveled off and sped back to the base.

    We came down steadily, our nacelles pointed up and forward, and performed a short, rolling landing, then taxied back to the hangar. Inside, I caught up with Jamie and asked him how he liked the flight.

    "I'm proud to be the first civilian to throw up in the V-22," he declared. "I'm thinking of sending that air-sick bag to the Smithsonian."

    Richard Whittle covers the Pentagon for The Dallas Morning News. He has followed the development of the V-22 Osprey since 1984.

  • #2
    I love it

    I knew it! Once the FMF pilots got a few hours of flight time, they can really make this aircraft go!

    So, who is going to be the first to loop it?

    Can you imagine being assigned to the V22 right out of flight school?

    Where can we sign up?

    Raymond J. Norton
    1513 Bordeaux Place
    Norfolk, VA 23509-1313

    (757) 623-1644