With the Bell Boeing V-22 now combat proven, TIM ROBINSON reports from Farnborough – ahead of the Osprey’s deployment to Okinawa, Japan and the
Ten years ago at the 2001 Paris Air Show a grand total of two reporters turned up to a V-22 Osprey press briefing from Bell Boeing and the US Marines. Two crashes in the previous year had killed a total of 23 – and the revolutionary tiltrotor looked highly vulnerable to being axed. Media reports suggested the aircraft was a deathtrap and, for many, the story was over.
Fast forward to 2012 – and the US Government is confident enough in the machine to send not one, not two, but four tiltrotors of the US Marine VMM-264 ‘Black Knights’ squadron to the UK this July to demonstrate it to the public, press and VIPs at the Royal International Air Tattoo and at Farnborough Air Show.
The reason? As a new type of flying machine it has taken time to master its nuances. But its unique capabilities have proved their worth in in combat in Afghanistan and Libya – with the result that it is now being aimed squarely at the export market. That does not mean that there will never be another V-22 accident (indeed 2012 has already seen two crashes, with two lives) but rather that both these have pointed to non-mechanical or technical problems. Human factors, in other words.
In combat in Afghanistan and last year in Libya, it has proved its worth in transport assault role, with the US Marines, who operate it in the MV-22 version. Indeed, Colonel Christopher ‘Mongo’ Seymour, commanding officer of Marine Air Group 26, (the parent unit of VMM-264) rates it as one of the safest aircraft in theatre – thanks to its high speed (up to 300kts) and high cruising altitude (putting it out of range of insurgent AAA and small arms). He also notes it is one of the most capable aircraft in dealing with deadly ‘brownout’, or spatial disorientation for the pilot when rotors kick up dust and sand close to the ground. Though this feature was probably underappreciated when the aircraft was built – brownout has resulted in more helicopters being lost in Afghanistan than due to enemy ground fire.
In Libya, in 2011 it also made history by swooping in and rescuing an downed F-15E Strike Eagle crew from under the noses of the enemy in its first Combat Search and Rescue mission. The fact that the Marines got the call when they were other capable (but slower) CSAR assets is an indication now that the V-22s speed and range are now being appreciated. The USMC now has 155 MV-22s in service (along with 2 AFSOC (CV-22) squadrons). The Marines are beginning to field the Block C version (two of which are here in the UK) which features a weather radar and better cabin environmental systems.
Further upgrades in the pipeline (defence budget permitting) would be a buddy refuelling kit (developed from the ground FARP system already in use) and interestingly an EW or command and control version, possibly similar to the Royal Navy’s Sea King ASaC. That would, says one source, allow a Marine MEU to have its own organic airborne EW/C&C platform.
Watch an exclusive interview with Col. Seymour below (note he was competing to be heard over a Super Hornet in the background(!)).
Inside the V-22
As part of its UK visit, selected media were invited aboard for a brief flight to experience the Osprey themselves. Impressions of a 30 minute flight aboard ‘Leroy 11’ are difficult to give – but what was noticeable was the aircraft gains height rapidly with the tilting nacelles in the 60degree position – with a max power climb of 2000 feet per minute and 70-80knots (the wing becomes effective at 40knots). Inside it is noisy as you would imagine a military transport to be, and there is a noticeable increase in vibration when in hover mode. Once high enough from the ground – the nacelles are tilted to the horizontal position (using a thumbwheel on the throttle) and the power is reduced to 85%. Our flight took place around 3,000-5,000ft.
However, possibly the most surprising thing is its agility. Though our Marine pilots from the ‘Black Knights’ probably took it easy on us – the pedal turn in the hover before landing shows how nimble it can be. In that sense it in similar to the Chinook, where the two rotors at ends of the cabin allow it exceptional agility. Col. Seymour (who as well as commanding MAG 26, is also the world’s most experienced tiltrotor pilot), agrees, flying the V-22, AW609 and XV-15 in testing. Having flown the V-22 before he handled the XV-15, he was disappointed – “I thought it would be a sports car” he said of the smaller tiltrotor compared to the Osprey.
Watch a video of take-off and climb below.
While the Osprey has seen action in Afghanistan and in Libya, 2013 will see the V-22 be based overseas in two new detachments – with the Marines in Okinawa, and with USAF Special Operations Command, in the UK at RAF Mildenhall. In the Pacific, the basing of 24 MV-22s on Okinawa will support the US ‘pivot’ to Asia-Pacific and its long range will back-up any strategy of island-hopping – should it be needed. And as Haiti showed, the prevalence of earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters in the region, means that the V-22 will no doubt be used in humanitarian relief as well. But the deployment has not been without controversy. The Osprey has found itself being used as political football in a disagreement between local politicians over the Marine’s presence. As a result the MV-22s are taking the slowboat to Japan while an agreement is being worked on.
Meanwhile in the UK in 2013 will see AFSOC base ten CV-22s at RAF Mildenhall to support USAF special operations across Europe. Finally a new mission for the Osprey will see it used as the ‘greenside’ Presidential support aircraft in HMX-1, taking over from the CH-46s.
With US defence cuts imminent, Bell and Boeing are now engaged in a sales pitch to interested buyers. There is unlikely to be an ‘imminent’ sale but company sources speak of its first export order being some 3-5 years off. Possible buyers include the UAE, Japan, Israel and Canada, with another non-export opportunity being the US Navy’s carrier onboard delivery requirement, to replace the older C-2 Greyhound. However set against its unique capabilities of speed and range and vertical lift is its cost (some $67m per aircraft) and maintenance per hour – although the company says the trend is moving in the right direction and costs are coming down.
After a long gestation, the highly capable tiltrotor appears to have finally silenced most of its critics. It has entered an aviation world dominated by either fixed-wing or rotary wing perceptions and has thus had to fight for its special niche, becoming one of only three VTOL aircraft (and there have been many), to enter series production. Note also that it is not a super-aircraft, capable of doing everything – but its versatility is certainly winning over both the Marines and AFSOC. When the first export customer might be announced is unknown, but it is clear there is now new interest in this combat proven platform.
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