Three decades after it first took flight, enough V-22 Ospreys are deployed to far-flung locations that virtually no corner of the globe is unreachable by what remains the world’s only production tiltrotor.
“The sun never sets on the V-22 empire, you might say,” Col. Matt Kelly, the U.S. military’s V-22 program manager, recently suggested at an event outside Washington, D.C.
“If I had a V-22 parked outside here, I could take off and basically be past St. Louis on one leg,” he said. “With one single refueling, I can land in San Francisco. If you look at all the places the V-22 is deployed with those services and with our partner Japan, there aren’t going to be too many places in the world you’re going to be able to hide from a V-22.”
It is an impressive resume for an aircraft that had a flawed and often fatal period of development and fielding, beginning on March 19, 1989 when the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey first broke contact with the ground. That flight initiated a program that would suffer tragic trials before entering service and becoming one of the most in-demand combat aircraft in the U.S. military fleet.
Bell, which at the time still used the “Helicopter” in its name, commemorated the event on the cover of the April 1989 edition of its internal print newsletter under the headline, “V-22 Osprey Makes Successful First Flight.”
As planned, the aircraft remained in helicopter mode, with its nacelles pointing skyward, for the entire 15-minute flight. Top speed was limited to 20 knots, 30 feet from the ground. Bell’s then-President Jack Horner called the successful flight “one of the greatest aeronautical achievements of the past 40 years,” according to the lead article.
Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Charles Pitman and nearly 2,000 people associated with the program were on hand to witness the flight.
“The Osprey will give us longer range, greater survivability, speed, agility and over-the-horizon capability,” Pitman said after the flight. “I’m excited about getting it into the forces as soon as possible.”
At the time, the Army was considering buying 231 MV-22s for medical evacuation, combat support and intra-theater airlift. The Army, however, never adopted tiltrotor technology — while the Marine Corps has gone so all-in that the MV-22’s range and speed have fundamentally changed the way its troops can operate from forward-deployed ships and overseas bases.
“This is truly a fifth-generation assault-support platform and the only production tiltrotor that can do what it does,” Kelly said. “Five times the range, twice the speed of a conventional helicopter, enables critical missions to be performed in one period of darkness. That’s really important for the CV-22, the special operations guys, but having that long range and high-speed capabilities are very handy for the Marine Corps as well as very handy for the Navy as they are resupplying their ships.”
More than 375 Osprey tiltrotors have since racked up 450,000 flight hours with the U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force Special Operations Command and the President’s airborne entourage.
After that first flight conducted in helicopter mode, it would take six more months for the aircraft to demonstrate airplane-mode forward flight. The program suffered its fair share of developmental delays, cost overruns and a series of fatal test flight accidents—the sadly predictable result of the program’s status as a radically new concept of vertical lift. In 2000, 23 Marines were killed in two accidents, leading to a lengthy grounding. The Osprey’s entry to service was eventually delayed until 2007.
The Marine Corps has since used the Osprey’s superior speed and range to revolutionize its airborne ship-to-shore operations. Other services and international customers are beginning to catch on to the tactical advantages of tiltrotor technology. The U.S. Navy will begin using a new CMV-22 variant to deliver personnel and cargo to its aircraft carriers, replacing the legacy C-2 Greyhound in the carrier onboard delivery role. Japan has signed up to be the first V-22 international customer.
Modifications and testing for the Japanese-specific V-22 variant are complete and training of Japanese pilots will begin this year. Next year, the first of 17 V-22s will be delivered to that country.
The first two CMV-22 fuselages are in Amarillo, Texas, where Bell is attaching the wing, nacelles and empennages. Those aircraft have larger fuel sponsons to increase the range to 11,050 nautical miles carrying 6,000 pounds, an HF antenna for air traffic control radio calls during long-distance oceanic routes and an internal public address system for transporting VIPs in the back.
The CMV-22 also is capable of carrying the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine used by the F-35, a feat no other aircraft can perform for the carrier fleet. In fact, the F-35C’s first deployment will coincide with the CMV-22’s first deployment aboard a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier.
With the CMV-22s under construction, the Navy has been testing some operational concepts using an MV-22 to perform the COD mission during a fleet battle experiment.
“We used MV-22s … to supply the big-deck carrier with logistics and supplies to start learning those operational-type lessons early because when the CMV hits the fleet, it’s going to go right into [operational testing] and then right into a deployment,” Kelly said. “We don’t think there will be any surprises. We’ve been operating MV-22s off these big-deck carriers for quite some time on and off in different exercises.”
Chris Gehler, vice president of Bell’s V-22 Program and deputy program director for the Bell-Boeing joint venture, says the Navy may find uses for the V-22 outside of the COD mission. With the CMV-22B scheduled for deployment in 2021, he says the Navy “wants to validate their operations and evaluate whether or not they want to buy more aircraft.”
“I think the Navy sees that the aircraft has a lot of utility, a lot of versatility, that just hasn’t been tapped yet for what they could do,” Gehler said. “There’s clearly the carrier mission, but there are other things to be done, and there is probably a Navy need for additional aircraft to do other missions without detracting from the COD mission itself.”
The V-22 production line — Boeing assembles the fuselage in Philadelphia, Bell attaches the nacelles and wings in Amarillo Texas — has work through 2025 under the current multi-year contract, according to Gehler.
Bell and Boeing are operating under a $4.2 billion multi-year contract that provides for the manufacture and maintenance of at least 58 V-22 aircraft.
Two CMV-22Bs are scheduled for delivery to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, late this year for flight tests, with one additional test aircraft to be delivered in 2020.
The total V-22 procurement objective for the U.S. military is 464 aircraft: 360 MV-22 Marine Corps aircraft, 48 Navy aircraft, and 56 CV-22 aircraft for USSOCOM (funded by USSOCOM and the Air Force).
Variants of the V-22 have deployed to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and participated in humanitarian operations, including earthquake relief in Haiti and Japan and hurricane response in the United States. Like the factory-to-battlefield Russian T-34s in Stalingrad in 1942, so popular and needed was the V-22 in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the Osprey was rolling off the assembly line and straight into combat for more than a decade, resulting in more than 70 different configurations in service.
Now Bell is working to keep the Osprey operationally relevant for another forty years, simplifying training and maintenance through the Common Configuration Readiness and Modernization (CCRAM) program to consolidate the fleet from more than 77 configurations into fewer than 17 variants.
Of 129 MV-22 Block B aircraft— built between five and 15 years ago — four are inducted into CCRAM and will be brought up to a 2019 configuration through system replacements and overhaul at Boeing’s manufacturing facility outside Philadelphia. The work includes about 60 engineering change proposals to improve both reliability and capability.
Improvements are aimed at reducing how much time maintainers spend caring for the nacelles, the rotating pieces at the end of the wings that house the engine, gearbox and rotor system. Nacelles take up a disproportionate amount of maintenance compared to the rest of the aircraft, Kelly said.
“This project is aimed at redesigning critical pieces of the nacelle — wiring and some of the structural enhancements — to make it more reliable and more maintainable as we move into the future,” he said.
Both the Marine Corps and Air Force have plans to upgrade their Ospreys’ sensors and curing systems to help pilots land in degraded visual environments. Long-wave infrared cameras are in testing to see if they can provide visual cues for pilots as they approach landing zones, Kelly said.
Cueing software would help pilots understand where the aircraft is in space and what control inputs to use to operate and land safely. Upgrades to the current pilot helmet heads-up display system would allow in-flight access to information and data visualization from the new sensors and processors, Kelly added.
“What we want to do is make sure it stays the centerpiece of that fifth-generation [Marine Air-Ground Task Force]. … That it can be that node, that it can relay information from ground forces to potentially other ground forces, to what’s in the air to what’s happening back on the ship.”
Ensuring that connectivity is available resulted in an urgent universal needs statement asking for short-term technological upgrades for the aircraft that is in operational testing. A more permanent, longer-term solution is still in the works, Kelly said.
“The Marine Corps is going to be flying this aircraft for 20, 30, 40 years,” he said. “We don’t really know exactly, but we know it’s a lot. We know the aircraft has got a lot of life left in it.”