Despite Crash, Osprey Is Full Speed Ahead
The Osprey remains the “safest, most survivable aircraft we have out there," Masiello told reporters April 16 at the Navy League’s Annual Sea, Air and Space conference. “Our operations currently remain unchanged.”
An Osprey participating in an international military exercise called African Lion went down April 11. Two Marines were killed and two injured in the accident.
An investigation of the crash in ongoing, forcing Masiello to limit his comments on what went wrong with the aircraft. A preliminary probe indicates that the cause of the crash was an issue with that particular aircraft and not one that is endemic to the fleet, he said.
“We take any loss of life very seriously,” Masiello said. “The Marine Corps is very conscious of this. We have no indication of anything that would lead us to change our operations.”
In fact, Masiello said he was confident the program has a healthy future. John Rader, vice president for Bell-Boeing’s V-22 program, cited heavy demand from foreign customers.
The joint venture is poised to deliver up to 360 aircraft to the Marine Corps, its primary user. The fleet is expected to grow to 200 aircraft in 2012.
Air Force Special Operations Command is scheduled to receive another 50. The Navy is conducting an analysis of alternatives for a replacement of its C-2 aerial resupply plane. If it settles on the V-22 as the preferred option, the Navy would eventually buy 48 Ospreys. The tilt-rotors, which take off and land like a helicopter but fly at high speeds like an airplane, are already cleared to operate from the Navy’s big-deck amphibious ships and recently were cleared to fly from full-size aircraft carriers after flight tests on the USS George H.W. Bush in March.
Because the aircraft can now land on any aviation accessible ship like a helicopter, but combines the speed and range of fixed-wing aircraft, Masiello said the Osprey has an advantage over other contenders for the Navy contract.
The second multi-year contract that Bell-Boeing has signed with the Defense Department includes a dramatic decrease in annual delivery rate. While the 50-50 partnership between Bell Helicopter and Boeing is currently churning out 40 per year, it will dial back to 21 per year under the next multi-year contract.
“That’s a relatively dramatic ramp down,” Rader said. “But we will see the benefit of increased sales.”
The program could get another boost as early as next year, when the first sale of an Osprey to a foreign military is expected, Masiello said. He would not specify which nations are interested in purchasing Ospreys, but said orders would likely be in batches of “10 to 12 and up.”
“That depends on whether the country is looking to augment its existing fleet” or introduce a new capability, he said.
Rader said potential foreign military sales will “certainly help to fill the gap,” between production rates specified in the two multi-year contracts, but they would not pick up the slack completely. The company already has excess production capacity, Rader said.
Bell-Boeing is contractually obligated to keep costs down to agreed-upon levels despite the expected decline in production. A combination of multi-year agreements, foreign military sales and the Navy’s possible purchase should allow the company to accomplish that goal, Rader said.
The aircraft itself met major milestones in 2011, reducing its cost per flight hour 13 percent to $10,000 per hour and increasing its mission readiness by 19 percent, said Masiello.
The Marine Corps plans in 2012 to introduce two squadrons of 12 Ospreys to Okinawa, the first unit of forward-deployed V-22s in the program’s history. The aircraft will also be introduced into the fleet that ferries the president and his entourage, HMX-1. The tilt-rotors are slated to replace the CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters the unit currently uses on presidential trips to ferry personnel including Secret Service agents and journalists, Masiello said.
Air Force Special Operations Command has plans to establish its own squadron of CV-22s at Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall in the United Kingdom.
Deployed continuously since 2007, the Osprey is still in its infancy, especially compared to its rotary wing brethren like the CH-47 Chinook that has been in continuous service for half a century.
“The value of the multi-year contract and the savings we expect are the reasons to move forward with the program,” Masiello said. “We are very early in the life cycle of this program.”