After a protracted, expensive and—for dozens of pilots and passengers—fatal development, the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force have bought hundreds of V-22 Osprey tiltrotors and deployed them all over the world.
The hybrid transport, which takes off and lands vertically like helicopter but cruises like an airplane thanks to its rotating engine nacelles, has seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and across Africa. Israel is buying a few copies—and Japan might, too.
But make no mistake. The V-22—made by a consortium of Bell and Boeing—is still a piece of junk. This is your periodic reminder that some ambitious aircraft designs were never meant to be.
Able to do only a few missions with any level of competence, the Osprey is actually overall inferior to the Vietnam-era CH-46 helicopter it replaced. The V-22 is the wrong airplane to take the Marine Corps back to its amphibious roots.
The V-22 had an extremely problematic research and development phase. Four crashes between 1991 and 2000 killed 30 people. Another six people have died in three crashes since the Osprey entered frontline service in 2007.
Originally planned to cost around $24 million per copy in the late 1980s, today a V-22 sets taxpayers back nearly $100 million. That’s twice the target price, after inflation.
A CH-46 cost $6 million in 1987. That’s around $11 million in today’s dollars.
The Osprey’s performance figures look impressive on paper. Yes, it can fly farther than a regular helicopter. It can fly higher than a helicopter—although it’s unpressurized. It has a larger load capacity than a CH-46. And it looks cool!
But the stats don’t hold up to scrutiny. Try asking the Marine Corps about the V-22’s realistic range when fully loaded. The Corps gets cagey.
The CH-46 could haul 15 fully loaded combat troops out to 160 miles. The V-22 should be able to carry 24 troops 233 miles, assuming it’s also carrying extra fuel tanks. En route, the V-22 is too fast to be escorted by conventional AH-1Z attack helicopters and too slow to tag along with F/A-18 fighters, making the tiltrotor all but defenseless.
The problems compound. A notoriously unforgiving aircraft, the Osprey is almost impossible to land in a brown-out situation, in which dust and dirt envelope the cockpit. To have any chance in a brown-out, a V-22 crew has to use advanced avionics and an infrared camera. A conventional helicopter can manage brownout with high-tech assistance, making it much safer.
This is an unfortunate circumstance when most conflicts today involve brown-out landings. This problem hinders the V-22’s ability to perform one of the main capabilities of a helicopter—landing anywhere. During the V-22’s first Iraq deployment in 2007, Marine CH-53 pilots scouted landing zones for the V-22s so the tiltrotors could more safely touch down.
The brass rightfully was worried that the V-22 might suffer a mishap if it landed on an LZ that the CH-53s hadn’t cleared first. The Marines then disingenuously hailed the deployment as an unprecedented success.
Once on station, the Osprey has still more problems. It can’t hover for very long so it can’t loiter well. The V-22’s prop-boxes—the transmission allowing the propellers to act as rotors—have great difficulty shedding heat. The only way to cool them is to fly around in airplane mode.
This would seemingly defeat the purpose of a convertible aircraft. And there isn’t a single helicopter in the military inventory with such limits.
The list of shortfalls goes on. Problems with shipboard operations are particularly serious for the Osprey. After spending more than a decade fighting on land in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Marines are getting back to their roots as a ship-based amphibious force. But the V-22 doesn’t work very well on ships—certainly worse than the old CH-46.
At best, operating with the V-22 at sea is a dangerous dance in mishap-avoidance for everyone involved. The Osprey’s downwash is so powerful that it frequently knocks down deck crew. In 2010 during Fleet Week celebrations in New York City, a V-22 injured 10 people with its rotor blast.
Now imagine the flight deck of an amphibious vessel crammed with other aircraft, men, fuel and munitions. As if this weren’t enough, the Osprey also has the unfortunate habit of quickly melting flight decks, reducing a deck’s useful service life by nearly half.
Simply taking off from a ship in an Osprey requires the pilots to keep one nacelle over the deck, while the other hangs over the water. This results in an immediate lift asymmetry. During an at-sea rescue mission, the V-22’s downwash could drown a survivor in the water before the crew can hoist them to safety.
Sailors have a joke. “The Osprey can wave at you while you drown.”
One of the CH-46’s major missions was to transport Marine Maritime Raiding Forces to conduct what the military calls Helicopter Visit Board Search and Seizure. Usually that means Marines sliding onto a ship’s deck down ropes dangling from a hovering helicopter.
The Navy’s standard MH-60 does this at an altitude of around 15 feet, with two fast rope attachment points and minimal downwash. The Osprey, on the other hand, requires a much higher hover height—and only has a single attachment point.
Raiders call the V-22 the “elevator of death” because of how violently the ropes move in the downdraft. Ospreys have never attempted HVBSS on a vessel smaller than an amphibious assault ship, which is a highly unlikely target for such raids.
For that reason, Navy MH-60s or Marine UH-1s or CH-53s must carry the raiding teams while the V-22s hang back, useless except as radio relays.
One of the things the Osprey does do well is long-range transportation with a light load. Unfortunately, most Marine Expeditionary Units only allow the V-22 to travel 25 miles over water without a wingman.
The V-22’s maintenance costs are exorbitant. An Osprey costs $11,000 per hour to fly, compared to just $4,600 for a CH-46.
And all that money still translates into very poor reliability. During one 2013 deployment, usually only half of the V-22s were mission-capable, one of which flew onto the ship at the beginning of a four-month cruise, subsequently broke and barely managed to fly off the ship at the deployment’s conclusion.
According to a V-22 maintenance officer I spoke to in 2013, the Osprey’s prop-boxes are supposed to last up to 1,000 flight hours, but in practice the Marines replace these $1.5-million components as frequently as every 150 hours.
Apparently Boeing knew about the problem and proposed a design fix, but the government passed on it in order to save money during development.
Even when it does fly, the V-22 doesn’t fly safely. A normal helicopter has the ability to land in the event of engine failure thanks to something called “auto-rotation”—a non-powered landing that counts on stored inertia from a helicopter’s rotors to cushion the aircraft near the ground.
In helicopter mode, the Osprey cannot auto-rotate. And with the aerodynamic characteristics of a flying brick, it can’t glide in helicopter mode, either.
Now, the Marines say that the chance of a dual engine failure in a V-22 is an extremely minute possibility, but this is not actually true. Fuel contamination is not an uncommon problem for the Navy and Marines, as many Navy ships store both fuel and water in the same tanks, which are then prone to build up certain kinds of fungi.
The resulting fuel contamination can cause dual engine flame-outs. And if an Osprey is operating at the same altitudes a helicopter does—around 500 feet—there’s little chance of gliding to a safe landing.
The Air Force seems to understand the V-22’s limitations and has employed its CV-22s in a much more effective way as a long-range infiltration platform. But even in this role, the Osprey still has suffered frequent mishaps.
The Air Force bought just 50 CV-22s, whereas the Marines are getting more than 300. The Marines bet the proverbial farm on the V-22. And with all the CH-46s having left service and no money for a new helicopter, now the Marines are stuck with the V-22.
No matter how awful it is.
Jack McCain is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Navy MH-60 pilot stationed in Guam. His opinions are not those of the U.S. military. Medium has an app! Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.