Celebrating 100 years of Marine Corps aviation: Osprey’s long journey to the fleet

29 Feb 2012 | Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki

The MV-22 Osprey is a new aircraft with a long story. NASA, the Army and numerous corporations worked to create an aircraft that could land like a helicopter and fly like a plane since the 1970’s. In September 2007, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 became the first Marine squadron to deploy to combat with this capability.

“The Marine Corps had identified the need to develop a future replacement for the CH-46 in the 1970’s,” said Benjamin H. Kristy, a curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. “The decision for the Marine Corps to pursue a tiltrotor aircraft was the result of several factors including the need to find a replacement for the CH-46, the maturation of previous tilt-rotor/tilt-wing technology demonstrators and a real-world military situation which could not be met by the current capabilities of the aircraft in the fleet.”

One such situation occurred in 1980 when Operation Eagle Claw launched to rescue hostages during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The operation failed when two aircraft collided, caught fire and killed several service members. According to Kristy, proponents of the MV-22 contend if the aircraft were available then, the planning and execution would have been simpler and reduced the chances of an accident.

“The benefits of helicopters are their ability to take off and land vertically, not requiring a long runway,” said Col. Christopher C. Seymour, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 26 and a former test pilot of the aircraft. “The primary weakness of helicopters is their limited speed, range and altitude envelope. Airplanes, on the other hand, have much greater speed, range and altitude capability.

“The Osprey combines the capabilities of both types of aircraft giving us unprecedented operational and tactical advantages.”

The Osprey development and production program was in full swing by 1986. Technical and cost challenges prevented the Osprey from entering combat service for 20 more years. Kristy explained the Osprey development team overcame several challenges on it’s way to the assembly line. One issue addressed was power settling. All helicopters are susceptible to a potentially disastrous aerodynamic condition when descending where the propellers of the aircraft are pushing on their own downwash. Because the air is descending, it cannot provide lift, causing the aircraft to fall.

Another issue was the fly-by-wire design. According to Kristy, older aircraft required hydraulics where if a pilot worked his controls, one mechanical device after another would interact to move the rudder on the tail or any other part of the aircraft. On the Osprey, however, when the pilot moves the stick, a computer interprets the input and an electrical impulse is sent to the parts of the aircraft involved. Kristy said the programming required to make the computer interpret data and send the impulses is very sophisticated.

Both issues caused losses during the research and development program but were overcome. The Osprey not only has a good safety record today, it has the best record of any rotorcraft, according to Seymour.

“Since 2007, we’ve deployed MV-22B squadrons three times to Iraq, four times to Afghanistan, and we’re ready to launch our fourth Marine Expeditionary Unit armed with an MV-22B core aviation combat element,” said Seymour. “During this time the MV-22B has accumulated more than 130,000 flight hours without a single combat loss. If my son were a Marine, I’d want him supported by the MV-22B Osprey.”

The MV-22B’s abilities to land like a helicopter and fly like an airplane safely marks the beginning of a new age on the battlefield.

“The predictions about how the Osprey can help reshape the battle-space for the ground commander thanks to its range and speed have been born out,” Kristy explained. “I think we are just seeing the beginning of what the Osprey can do and how the Marine Corps will find ways of utilizing those capabilities to good effect on the field of battle.”

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point