In the Disaster Zone, Marine V-22s Finally Deliver on Tiltrotor Promise
Controversial tiltrotors revamping their reputation in The Philippines
A week after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the central Philippines, 14 V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft are flying disaster relief missions in the most affected parts of the country. They survey damage and deliver supplies to stricken areas and bring people out.
Part plane, part helicopter, the Osprey is proving to be the ideal aircraft for disaster relief in areas lacking infrastructure.
Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines on Nov. 7, and by Nov. 11 the first four Ospreys had made the trip from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Japan to Villamor air base, outside Manila. The Ospreys self-deployed, meaning they flew the entire 900 miles over water on their own. For long stagings, helicopters normally hitch rides inside cargo planes.
By Nov. 17, U.S. military assets, including the Ospreys, had delivered 655,000 pounds of supplies provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development. American aircraft had also hauled in 1,200 aid workers and evacuated nearly 4,900 refugees. In just 24 hours, U.S. Marine C-130 Hercules transports and V-22 Ospreys delivered 66,000 pounds of relief supplies to the hardest hit areas, including the Leyte island towns of Tacloban, Borongan and Guiuan.
Marine C-130 transports, able to haul 42,000 pounds of cargo, have done much of the long-range, heavy lifting. But the Osprey is no slouch in cargo capacity, either. The V-22 can carry 6,000 pounds of cargo or 24 people internally.
The C-130s and V-22s work to carry the aid in relays. First, the four-engine airlifters fly food and water to Tacloban Airfield on the island of Leyte, which after the devastation of Haiyan is now just a barren airstrip. From there Ospreys carry smaller loads onward to more remote areas inaccessible to fixed-wing planes. On return flights the Ospreys evacuate small numbers of the most desperate refugees.
“This is part of the amphibious and expeditionary nature that the Navy and Marine Corps team prides themselves on,” Marine Corps Assistant Commandant John Paxton told Military Times. “The Philippines happens to be one of those areas that is kind of uniquely, geographically relevant to the Navy-Marine Task Force.”
There are more than 7,000 islands in The Philippines spread over an area of 115,000 square miles. Many have been cut off from the outside world by the storm. The lack of basic infrastructure in the hardest hit communities—which are also some of The Philippines’ poorest—has made relief operations difficult.
Fixed-wing planes have nowhere to land. And helicopters lack the range to reach the farthest-flung towns, some of which lie more than 500 miles from Manila and another 80 miles from Tacloban.
The Osprey is perfect for this scenario. It’s able to fly far and fast like and airplane and land like a helicopter owing to its rotating engine nacelles, requiring a landing zone roughly the size of a soccer field. It can also refuel in midair from the KC-130 transports, making additional airstrips on the ground for refueling unnecessary.
The Osprey is much more suitable to the task than The Philippines’ tiny helicopter force, which consists of roughly a dozen Polish-built medium utility helicopters and U.S.-made, Vietnam-era UH-1 Huey helicopters.
It’s even more suitable than some U.S. military helicopters of similar size. The U.S. Army’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters have more room for people and cargo than the Osprey, but performance-wise it lags behind. The Chinook is slower and has a shorter range, and the lack of midair refueling capability would make it difficult just getting them to the disaster area.
Only the giant CH-53 Super Stallion would in some ways outperform the Osprey. A class larger than the Osprey, the Super Stallion is slower but has greater range and internal cargo volume. It too can refuel in mid-air, but the closest Super Stallions are more than 5,000 miles away in Hawaii, too far to self-deploy,and too big to easily transport.
The Osprey does have its downsides. It has a small cabin volume, meaning wheelchairs are the only vehicles it’s going to be carrying. The rotor blast—wind generated by the tilt rotor’s giant propellers—is ferocious and known to injure people. And, at $67-70 million apiece, it’s an awfully expensive way to carry 24 people.
But for all the aircraft’s faults, the V-22 Osprey was the ideal first responder aircraft for a disaster in a Third World country.
Decades of controversy
For the Osprey, the Pentagon’s Operation Damayan (“mutual aid” in Tagalog, the language of The Philippines) signifies a coming out for the controversial aircraft, which has been dogged by a prolonged development period, high costs and, especially early, on a high accident rate.
First flown in 1989, the V-22 finally entered service with the Marines in 2007. Lifetime costs for the 360 aircraft fleet will amount to roughly $121 billion over 30 years. The V-22 has crashed seven times and burned on many more occasions, for a total of 36 fatalities.
By 2012, Marine Corps Ospreys were ready for flight only 68 percent of the time. Reports out of The Philippines suggest more progress on the reliability issue, but time—and after-action reports—will tell the full story later.
The Ospreys of Marine Corps Medium Tiltrotor Squadrons 262 and 265 have not been without controversy at their home base in Japan, either. They recently replaced smaller, lighter CH-46 helicopters at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, part of the sprawling American presence on that island.
Japanese officials grounded Ospreys for two months shortly after their arrival over safety concerns, and the Marines and Japanese officials worked out ground rules for training that addressed some of the the locals’ concerns.
But after a long and at times deadly development period, the disaster has been the PR success the controversial aircraft needs, especially as the Pentagon eyes cutting programs to comply with new fiscal realities. The Osprey not only saved a lot of needy people, it may have just saved itself.