The troubled V-22 tiltrotor Osprey aircraft continues to encounter
problems even as it lurches toward full-rate production, possibly
as early as November of this year.
The V-22 is
intended to replace the U.S. Marine Corps’ 40-year-old, medium-lift
CH-46E Sea Knight and the Air Force Special Operations Command’s
34-year-old, heavy lift MH-53 Pave Low III helicopters.
Developed jointly by the Boeing Co. and the Bell Helicopter unit
of Textron Inc., the Osprey is a tiltrotor aircraft that is designed
to take off and land straight up, like a helicopter, then tilt its
rotors forward and fly like a fixed-wing platform.
After four deadly crashes in 2000, flights were suspended for 18
months—a tactic called an “operational pause”—while
Bell Boeing engineers corrected flaws in the V-22’s hydraulic
and flight-control software systems.
Since flights resumed in May 2002, the V-22 has completed a number
of successful tests. In November 2004, it passed a 10-day shipboard
suitability evaluation. This event, which took place aboard the
USS Wasp (LHD-1), required interaction between a V-22 parked on
the ship’s flight deck and one hovering in front of it. Also
included were nighttime takeoffs and tests of the flight-control
The Wasp test was the fourth and final shipboard evaluation since
the V-22’s return to flight. The next step was the aircraft’s
first operational evaluation, which was supposed to begin in February.
“It’s a four-month final exam,” said Air Force
Col. Craig S. Olson, manager of the Naval Air Systems Command’s
V-22 joint program office at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
“The V-22 actually performs better in a desert environment
than current helicopters,” said Marine Col. Keith “Berzerk”
Birkholz, head of the Corps’ aviation weapons systems requirements
If the Osprey passes the operational evaluation, the program office
hopes to receive permission for full-rate production in November
of this year, officials said at a recent Navy-industry conference,
in Washington, D.C.
That schedule, however, could be affected by another operational
pause that was imposed briefly in mid-January. Members of Marine
Tiltrotor Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22, at Marine Corps
Air Station New River, N.C.—where the aircraft is being put
through its paces—discovered that bearings in the gearbox
that sends power to the aircraft’s rotors were wearing out
faster than expected. Officials apparently resolved this latest
problem within a few days by installing a new gearbox with improved
bearings. The pause was lifted in early February.
Meanwhile, Olson conceded that the V-22 still needs work. “We’ve
got issues with the program—no question about it,” he
told the conference. Whenever the V-22 begins full-rate production,
questions are arising about how many will be built, at least initially.
Until 2003, Defense Department officials had planned to buy 20 of
them in 2006. In August of that year, however, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld directed the services to reduce that number to 17.
Now, Pentagon officials are considering further cutbacks—reductions
of four in 2006, eight in 2007, another eight in 2008 and two in
Officials said they intend ultimately to buy the same number of
V-22s, but at a slower pace. The Marines plan to buy 360 variants,
dubbed MV-22s, to be used for amphibious assaults, sustained land
operations and self-deployment. Special operators want 50 variants
called CV-22s for long-range missions, contingency assignments,
evacuations and maritime special operations. The Navy is seeking
48 of its own versions—once named HV-22s, but now called modified
MV-22s—for use in personnel recovery, fleet logistic support,
aerial refueling and special warfare.
The Navy, however, is not as far along as the Marines and special
operators in developing its tiltrotor, according to Birkholz. “The
Navy is going to have to put some money where its studies are,”
he said. “All they have is artists’ concepts so far.”
The Marines and special operators are busy testing their models
at New River, Patuxent and the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards
Air Force Base, Calif.
“VMX-22 [at New River] was stood up in November 2003 for
the sole purpose of testing the MV-22,” Olson explained. Since
2003, VMX-22 has accepted 14 aircraft, flown more than 2,900 hours
in them, completed in-flight icing tests in Nova Scotia and conducted
austere landings at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The squadron also
has trained in air refueling, parachute operations, external lifts,
cargo drops, fast-roping, flying in formation, use of night-vision
goggles, and carrier takeoffs and landings.
Another unit—Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron (VMMT)
204—has been established. HMM-263, also based at New River,
is scheduled to begin classes in November, Birkholz said. The Marines
expect to retrain two squadrons a year. In addition, the Air Force
plans to send pilots to the New River classes.
The CV-22 will give Air Force special operators a capability they
now lack, said Col. Tommy Hull, deputy director of operations for
the Air Force Special Operations Command. “Infiltration, exfiltration
and resupply missions are about 90 percent of what we do,”
he explained. “Right now, we have an inability to conduct
those missions within one period of darkness because of limited
airspeed capability,” he said.
Initially at least, the V-22 will lack one important capability
that most current helicopters have, and that is armaments. The Pave
Hawk, for example, carries two 7.62 mm machine guns. The first block
of V-22s will not be armed.
“We’ve been studying various gun solutions,”
Birkholz told National Defense. For now, none of those options is
affordable, he said.
For the immediate future, he said, the V-22 will rely upon speed,
agility and evasion tactics to avoid enemy fire. “We’re
not supposed to land in a hot zone. We’re supposed to know
where the bad guys are, and land where they’re not.”
If a V-22 is required to land in a hot zone, “you’re
going to get out of the landing zone a hell of a lot faster in a
V–22 than you would in a ’53,” Birkholz said.
Still, he conceded, “it would be nice to be able to suppress
that enemy fire while you get away.”
Officials are considering installing a ramp gun in the rear of
the second block of V-22s, now in the planning stage, he said. “It
would be strictly for self-defense on the way out.”
Also under consideration is a redesign of the V-22’s nose
to accommodate a chin gun, Birkholz said. “It’s all
do-able,” he said. “It’s just expensive.”
In fact, the entire V-22 program is costly, officials concede.
A selected acquisition report released in 2004 noted the estimated
cost to produce the 458 planned aircraft had increased from $32
billion in 1986 to $48 billion in December 2003.