The Phoenix: V-22 Osprey in Service

A decade to the day after the disaster at Marana, tragedy revisited the Osprey for the first time since its Dark Ages. On a pitch-black night in southern Afghanistan, an Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22B Osprey, one of three carrying Army Rangers on a raid against an insurgent target, touched down at more than 90 miles an hour a quarter mile short of its intended landing zone, a desolate area five kilometers east/southeast of the village of Qalat. With its landing gear down and its nacelles tilted upward at more than 80 degrees—not quite in 90-degree helicopter mode—the Osprey sped across the flat, sandy earth in what some of the Rangers on board thought was just a fast roll-on landing. Then its front wheels bounced, smacked into the ground, and collapsed. The Osprey’s bulbous nose began plowing into the soft soil, then hit a two-foot-deep gully, flipping the aircraft onto its back, tail over nose. The cockpit was crushed. The fuselage slammed into the ground upside down. The pilot and an enlisted flight engineer from the Air Force’s 8th Special Operations Squadron, the latter sitting in the jump seat behind and between the pilots, were killed. So were a corporal from the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and an Afghan woman interpreter, both riding in the middle of the cabin. The copilot, thrown from the aircraft still strapped into his seat, survived. So did another Air Force flight engineer, thirteen other Rangers, and a male Afghan interpreter, all of whom had been kneeling in the cabin, wearing safety harnesses attached to the floor. Many had serious injuries.

The Air Force took eight months to release its accident report, whose results were inconclusive and, for some, controversial. The president of the eight-member Aircraft Investigation Board, Brigadier General Donald Harvel of the Texas Air National Guard, ruled out enemy fire, vortex ring state or a “brownout” landing, in which dust kicked up by the rotors might have disoriented the pilot. Harvel concluded that as many as ten factors contributed to the accident, none of which could be singled out as the primary cause. Among them were a 17-knot tailwind and the crew being distracted while pressing to get to the target on time. Harvel included a loss of power in the Osprey’s engines on the list of contributing causes. The vice commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command, Major General Kurt Cichowski, disagreed. Citing engineering studies by the maker of the engines and Navair, Cichowski officially declared that there was no evidence of power loss. The one piece of gear that could have settled the disagreement, the CV-22’s Flight Incident Recorder, which records engine data and instrument readings, was never recovered, though troops who arrived to rescue the victims and sort through the debris removed many other items of classified gear. Four hours after the accident, on the recommendation of an Army commander, two Air Force A-10 “Warthog” planes dropped four 500-pound bombs on the wreckage to keep insurgents or others from getting their hands on anything that might be of value. Harvel retired from the Air Force as planned on Sept. 15, 2010, three months before the Air Force released his report, still troubled by the failure to recover the Flight Incident Recorder. He was sure the device would have shown that the CV-22 had lost at least some power in each of its engines that night, possibly from compressor stalls caused by the tailwind, possibly because of the thin air at the altitude where the accident occurred—5,226 feet above sea level—or perhaps because of mechanical failure. The pilot, Major Randell Voas, 43, had been one of the Air Force’s best in the Osprey. Voas approached the landing zone that night too fast, but Harvel was certain that, rather than simply losing track of his altitude and flying his plane into the ground, Voas was trying to make an emergency roll-on landing, presumably because he lacked enough engine power to either maintain level flight or land like a helicopter.

In any event, the news media barely took notice. As in the late 1990s, by 2010 the Osprey was once again a dog-bites-man story. The frequency of helicopter and personnel losses in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was perhaps one explanation for media lack of interest. By the time the CV-22B went down, the U.S. military had suffered 546 deaths in 403 helicopter crashes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Twenty of those killed died in five crashes of CH-46 Sea Knights, the Marine Corps helicopter the Osprey was primarily designed to replace. Over roughly the same period, the Marines had flown their MV-22B Ospreys more than 70,000 hours without a fatal accident, including more than 11,500 hours over Iraq and Afghanistan. VMM-263 and two other Marine Corps squadrons had flown the dozen Ospreys taken to Iraq in 2007 a total of 9,054 hours in that war zone. Poor reliability remained a problem. Marine Corps and Bell-Boeing mechanics in Iraq were hard-pressed to keep an average 70 percent of the Ospreys there “mission capable,” a shortcoming largely laid to parts wearing out faster than engineers had predicted. At the same time, those dozen Ospreys safely delivered more than 44,000 passengers and 2.8 million pounds of cargo during their nineteen months in Iraq. Pleased with the Osprey’s performance there, the Marines sent a dozen MV-22Bs to Afghanistan in November 2009, where the Corps was gearing up for a campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group’s Taliban allies in Helmand province. The Air Force Special Operations Command began flying its CV-22Bs in Afghanistan not long afterward.

Given its safety record over the previous decade, even after the CV-22B crash, the idea that the Osprey was a “death trap” and “widow-maker,” as its harshest critics had charged, sounded like a hysterical echo from the past. In Afghanistan, reliability remained a stubborn issue for the MV-22B, but during its first year there, the Osprey defied the predictions of detractors who had warned that the tiltrotor would be an easy target for enemy fire in “hot” landing zones. In Afghanistan, the Osprey wasn’t flying into ambushes of the sort helicopters faced in Vietnam, where enemy troops cloaked by jungle cover often met choppers with a hail of gunfire. The technology of war had changed greatly since the 1960s, and as a result, so had tactics. Enemy forces— especially in barren Afghanistan—rarely massed in the modern age, when unmanned surveillance drones and other airborne sensors could spot them as they gathered and aircraft carrying “smart” bombs could attack them with pinpoint accuracy—tools of war that didn’t exist during Vietnam. Like helicopters flying in Afghanistan, the Osprey was more often a target for lone insurgents or small groups armed with AK-47 assault rifles or short-range rocket-propelled grenades. After a year in Afghanistan, the Osprey had so far proven equal to that challenge. During that year, Marine Corps Ospreys bringing troops into combat had been hit a confirmed five times by 7.62-millimeter bullets—standard ammunition for the AK-47. No one in those aircraft was killed or wounded. In each case, their pilots were able to fly them back to their base at Camp Bastion, where mechanics repaired the damage and put the aircraft back into service.

Even so, the Osprey’s public image was little changed, and the debate was far from over. Those unfamiliar with the Osprey’s rise from its own ashes since 2001 were often surprised to hear it still existed. Bloggers, think tank experts, and many journalists still described the Osprey as “troubled,” ignoring its safety record and focusing on its low reliability rates and high cost. Critics derided the Marines for using the Osprey in Iraq as a “truck” and a “bus,” or to ferry VIPs around combat zones. Some insisted the Osprey’s inability to autorotate to a safe landing still constituted a major risk. A V-22 would be a dead duck, they said, if both engines were shot out or otherwise failed too close to the ground or with too little speed for its pilots to convert the rotors to airplane mode and glide on the wing to a safe landing. The most severe critics still contended the side-by-side placement of the Osprey’s rotors would lead to an uncommanded and unrecoverable roll if one rotor went into vortex ring state at low altitude.

Marine and Air Force Osprey pilots were sanguine about their ability to handle such risks. They were also certain that the tiltrotor’s ability to fly far faster and farther and higher than any helicopter, putting it well above the small-arms threat, was saving lives in Afghanistan by making the Osprey a far tougher target than the critics imagined. Still, the Marines clearly had much to prove before they could definitively claim the Osprey had been worth its hefty price. On March 28, 2008, two weeks before Lieutenant Colonel Paul Rock led VMM-263 home from Iraq, the Pentagon awarded the Bell-Boeing partnership a $10.4 billion contract to build 167 more Ospreys over the coming five years, 141 for the Marines and 26 for the Air Force. The Marines, the Air Force, and the Navy still planned to buy 458 in all. Calculating from the first contract in 1983 and including inflation, their total cost was projected at nearly $53 billion—$12 billion more than estimated in 1982 for what at the time was expected to be nearly three times as many aircraft. Bell-Boeing’s multiyear contract was the kind of deal defense companies strive for, a near guarantee that neither President Barack Obama’s administration nor Congress would cancel the Osprey before 2012. Cancellation charges would make writing off such an investment prohibitively expensive and politically difficult. Navair and Bell-Boeing were negotiating a second multiyear contract to begin in 2013 as well. In an era of trillion-dollar federal deficits, though, the Osprey remained a juicy target for defense spending critics and others searching for ways to cut the federal budget. In November 2010, the co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a panel created by Obama to find ways to close the budget deficit, recommended halting Osprey purchases at 288. Even so, there was little expectation the proposal would be adopted. Without commenting on the Osprey, Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected the commission’s proposed military spending cuts as “math, not strategy.” Equally importantly, the Osprey’s support in Congress remained strong, and Marine and Air Force leaders insisted their services needed all the V-22s planned.

As 2010 ended, the Marine Corps was well along in creating new operational squadrons to fly its expanding Osprey fleet. Six Osprey squadrons existed at New River Marine Corps Air Station and two more at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in California. One of the busiest was VMMT-204, the training squadron at New River. Paul Rock, who had spent the Osprey’s Dark Ages at the same squadron, was now its commander. After leading the Osprey’s first deployment to Iraq, Rock had been promoted to full colonel in July 2009 and put in charge of preparing new Osprey pilots and mechanics for the Marines and Air Force both.

The Osprey’s survival and initial success, meanwhile, was rekindling civilian interest in the tiltrotor. The aviation revolution predicted by the true believers was nowhere in sight, but the dream was alive. “I really do believe that tiltrotor aviation is going to revolutionize a lot of the things that we do,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former Marine general and astronaut, told engineers in September 2010 at his agency’s Ames Research Center in California—where tiltrotor true believer Dick Spivey was now running the co-located Army Aeroflightdynamics Directorate, that service’s rotorcraft research arm. Spivey’s agency was working on ideas for new rotorcraft, including tiltrotors, to replace military helicopters. NASA had built a computerized simulator of a 100-passenger civilian tiltrotor and was studying how such an aircraft might share the national airspace with other civilian traffic. Bell Helicopter and its Italian partner, AgustaWestland S.p.A., meanwhile, were flight-testing prototypes of a nine-passenger civilian tiltrotor roughly the size of the XV-15 called the BA609. Bell executives no longer saw an unlimited market for tiltrotors, just niches where its speed could make a big difference, such as emergency medical services and evacuating offshore oil platform crews in emergencies. AgustaWestland, though, remained committed as ever. Chief Executive Giuseppe Orsi forecast that the BA609 would be in production by 2013 or 2014, and with European partners, AgustaWestland was also working on another tiltrotor called the Erica. “We believe the future is in the tiltrotor,” Orsi said.

Others were exploring tiltrotors with equal enthusiasm. California aircraft designer Abraham Karem, regarded as a genius by many in his field, hoped that by 2018, airlines would be buying his AeroTrain, a tilt-rotor designed to carry 120 passengers 200 to 1,000 miles per trip. “The obstacles to fielding a high-efficiency transport tiltrotor remain more political than technical,” Karem told me. “I personally believe that there is no other effort in aeronautics today that can equal the transformative potential of a civilian transport tiltrotor with efficiency rivaling our best fixed-wing transports.” Others were studying technologies such as variable-length rotor blades to improve on those used in the Osprey and BA609. Who could say whether some technological breakthrough that would make the tiltrotor simpler and cheaper wasn’t just around the corner? In 1936, Orville Wright had flatly declared the helicopter impractical. Three years later, Igor Sikorsky proved Wright wrong. The helicopter required two decades more to come into every day use, but it did. Perhaps the tiltrotor just needed more time to change the world.

Or perhaps the true believers were dreaming. That might be so, but then progress often depends on dreamers, especially in aviation. Whoever sets out to conquer the air just has to have a dream. It comes with the territory.

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