V-22 Upgrades in Works as Aircraft Passes Milestones
Marine Corps Col. Matthew Kelly recalls being deployed to Iraq in 2008, when the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey made its in-theater debut.
Turned off by the aircraft’s sheer newness and casting a leery eye toward its tiltrotor design, flag officers and VIPs were nearly universal in their initial aversion to flying in one.
“If they had to get somewhere, they said, ‘Listen — I’m taking my helicopter. I know what it does,’” Kelly said.
This changed, however, when they saw how quickly the Osprey could transport them from one end of the country to the other while flying as high as 25,000 feet, an altitude exceeding any threat posed by insurgents’ ground-based weapons.
“All of a sudden, the entire flight schedule was booked,” Kelly told National Defense. “No senior officer wanted to go anywhere unless they could fly on the V-22, because it was fast and safe. It really opened a lot of people’s eyes, even without seeing it do its primary assault missions and what it could bring to combat.”
A fixed-wing pilot by trade, Kelly is now the program manager for the entire V-22 project, with the Patuxent River Naval Air Station,
Maryland-based Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). As such, he manages the development, sustainment and procurement of all V-22 aircraft throughout the Defense Department, as well as any present and future foreign military sales users.
With the aircraft having proved its utility many times over since its introduction to the Marine Corps’ inventory in 1999, Kelly’s main job now is overseeing the shift toward its maintenance and sustainability and away from production.
NAVAIR has received funding for the third and likely final multi-year lot, Kelly told an audience during a Feb. 22 vertical take-off and landing conference, a virtual event sponsored by The Patuxent Partnership. The production line will remain open for potential additional orders, Kelly said, possibly up until sometime in fiscal year 2023.
Bell Boeing delivered the 400th aircraft to customers last year. Its mission is expanding as new users come online. The Navy is planning to use the CMV-22 variant as a replacement of the Grumman C-2 Greyhound for carrier onboard delivery. The service marked a milestone last November, when a CMV-22B conducted the first carrier landings, take-offs and refueling on the USS Carl Vinson. COD deployments should begin sometime later this year. Additionally, the service awarded a $309.5 million contract to produce and deliver four CMV-22B aircraft by March 2025.
Air Force Special Operations Command is using another variant, the CV-22, for long-range infiltration, exfiltration and resupply missions.
As the Osprey’s initial customer and primary user, the Marine Corps remains committed to using it as the primary mode of speedily moving troops from ship to shore and into a combat zone.
The platform’s success has garnered considerable interest from international partners as well. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces became the first foreign military sales customer in 2015, and began operations in earnest last November at Kisarazu Air Field.
“These [Japanese] aircraft support the United States military with multi-mission capabilities,” Shane Openshaw of Bell Boeing said in an interview. Openshaw is deputy director of the company’s V-22 program, and Boeing’s vice president for tiltrotor programs.
Two other nations — Israel and Indonesia — are considering acquisition of the V-22, Kelly added.
As the Osprey’s maturation process continues, it is demonstrating the ability to perform missions that both meet and exceed expectations.
Kelly cited a mission the Marines performed in early 2020, to confront a threat that demonstrators posed to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
“The two Ospreys were the quickest and fastest way to get Marines into that compound, to ensure the safety of that entity. That’s precisely the mission we bought it for,” Kelly said.
Successes like the Baghdad operation worked to convince AFSOC that the decision to acquire the Osprey was a sound one.
“They knew they could use it for that long-range infiltration mission, where they’re trying to insert special operators either by paradrop or landing to a specific site,” Kelly said. “More importantly, they could then pick up and exfiltrate those combat troops quickly.”
Like the Marines, AFSOC has found the Osprey platform useful for rapid resupply of food, ammunition, weapons and several types of smaller vehicles that can fit in its cargo space.
As the Navy is in the early stages of incorporating the aircraft into the delivery mission, it too is finding new uses and advantages its predecessor could not provide, such as in-flight refueling capability. It can carry 6,000 pounds of cargo 1,100 nautical miles — enough to carry, for instance, an F-35 engine power module out to an aircraft carrier. The Osprey performed this exact task in late February for the first time, delivering a module to the Carl Vinson somewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
“If the V-22 has to interact with another ship in the carrier strike group, it can do that too,” Kelly said.
The flight decks on a wide array of Navy vessels — to include San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks, Wasp-class amphibious assault ships and landing helicopter assault ships, in addition to carriers and littoral combat ships — can accommodate the Osprey.
Describing the aircraft as “a pleasure to fly,” Kelly believes he is echoing the opinion of other pilots in the aviation community.
“I’ve flown it, and I’ve also flown the F-35 [joint strike fighter], so I’ve hovered in a fixed-wing aircraft and the V-22,” he said. “For as big an airplane as it is, you can control it with a lot of precision. It’s very handy when you’re landing it on board a ship.”
In airplane mode, Kelly said, it feels more like a C-130 Hercules and flies at a comparable airspeed, without the vibrations and shaking of a conventional helicopter. The services do not keep statistics as to whether fixed-wing or rotary pilots find the transition to the Osprey easier to grasp, he said.
“In a fixed-wing, you’re doing a lot more instrument flying. When you’re landing, you just need to look forward down the runway. The fixed-wing pilots tend to have an advantage there,” Kelly explained. “Rotary-wing pilots are used to looking outside and scanning with their heads a lot more, to judge your forward drift. They’re used to those sorts of tasks in the slower environment, as you would expect. So both pilots bring different parts of that to the mission.”
With the Osprey now well ensconced as an integral part of the inventory, work continues on current and future upgrades. Earlier this year, NAVAIR awarded an $81 million contract to develop and install modified nacelle kits and conversion harnesses for the CV-22. Situated at the end of each wing, nacelles provide housing for the plane’s key power and propulsion components. They also hold the wiring bundles that feed systems throughout the aircraft and serve the system that converts the Osprey from vertical to horizontal flight and back.
“Approximately 60 percent of maintenance man-hours are spent in the nacelles,” Air Force Col. Brian Clifford, CV-22 program manager, said in a NAVAIR press release.
Refinement of the nacelle design should reduce time spent getting repairs and improve readiness, Clifford said. The work will take place at Bell’s Amarillo, Texas, facility. The Marine Corps and Navy also are considering the same upgrade.
A number of other major sustainment issues are currently on the table, Kelly said. The older Marine aircraft are undergoing a common configuration, readiness and modernization program, which would bring systems on 2010 aircraft up to 2020 standards. The roughly 60 modifications include new mission computers, a better weather radar and scratch-resistant wind screens, he said. The handful of aircraft that have completed the process have demonstrated increases in readiness rates, as well as a decreased need for maintenance man-hours.
Plans also call for an improved helmet-mounted display for the MV-22, akin to those available on other newer aircraft.
“We’re looking to use it for the degraded visual environment during brown-out landings,” Kelly said. “That [display] is going to provide the pilot with a ground reference and information that will allow him to keep his situational awareness cueing, even when there is no outside visual.”
The V-22 program office recently completed an in-house study that analyzed sustainment of the Osprey’s medium-lift capability for the near- and mid-future, Kelly told the virtual audience. Based on its findings, the command planned an industry day in March to garner ideas.
In the meantime, he said, the command has engaged in discussions with the Marine Corps about further improving survivability, and establishing the ability to operate an assault-support platform in high-threat environments.
“We’re used to going 280 knots,” Kelly told the audience. “What about 550 knots? What does that buy us?”
As open-ended as this statement-question is, Kelly and his colleagues believe they have a firm handle on what the Osprey brings to the table.
“The V-22 is a unique aircraft. The speed, range, vertical take-off and landing capabilities — no other aircraft can match those things,” Kelly said. “It suits itself to many different missions, and will continue to play a key role in the Marine Corps, AFSOC, the Navy, and now our foreign partner — Japan. We’re really proud of the work the pilots, air crews and maintainers do, and we’re looking forward to another 30 to 40 years of flying the V-22.”
While the three aforementioned services have found a place for the Osprey, the Army is considering a variant as a potential future replacement for the venerable Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
The Bell V-280 Valor tiltrotor aircraft has undergone more than 200 flight hours in more than 150 individual test flights under a competitive contract during the past three years as part of the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft program. Valor’s competition for the contract is Sikorsky-Boeing’s SB-1 Defiant helicopter, which closely resembles a conventional helicopter but is powered primarily by top-mounted coaxial rotors.