MIRAMAR, California — The Marines don’t call the Osprey a helicopter. They call it an airplane. An airplane that can hover.
But as of this summer, it is now the primary workhorse helicopter in the Marines’ inventory despite a long and troubled history on the path to flight.
This month, the men and women of Squadron VMM-268 of the 3rd Marine Air Wing head off in support of the fight against ISIS, marking their first deployment with the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey.
On a hot Southern California morning, on the busy flight deck at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the Marines of VMM-268 professed their love for the Osprey.
“The first time I saw one flying around, I was like, ‘That’s pretty incredible. It would be awesome to fly that thing,’ ” said Osprey pilot Capt. Chris Stoddard. “So having the opportunity to do it is awesome. It’s a lot of fun to fly.”
But having that opportunity didn’t come easily. For decades, men in uniforms with stars on their shoulders (and in their eyes) dreamed of a day when they could deploy an aircraft into combat with the ability to take off and land vertically and also fly with the range and speed of an airplane.
The Marine Corps has been the most ambitious of the military branches to seek out and employ vertical takeoff and landing capabilities for aircraft.
The advent of atomic weapons made the amphibious warfare the Marines specialize in far more complicated. The ability to mass ships around an island such as Iwo Jima was not possible when the enemy could simply launch a single warhead and wipe out an entire expeditionary force.
Helicopters allowed the Marines to launch from ships far offshore and fly quickly over vast distances. That made it more difficult for an adversary to fight an attack from the sea.
Still, helicopters had their limitations, namely speed and range. So in 1983, when Bell Helicopters and Boeing agreed to team up and build a hybrid helicopter/airplane, the Marines were all in, despite the massive engineering and political challenges involved in building such an aircraft.
A rough ride
The development of the Osprey was, to put it mildly, choppy.
It cost 30 lives and billions of dollars during testing in the 1990s. It survived several Senate votes to kill it. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney fought mightily to cancel the program. Congress intervened to save it.
Originally, all four branches had plans to buy Ospreys. Skyrocketing development costs knocked out the Army and Navy. It had to go through several redesigns and the almost-constant budget battles between the Pentagon and Congress exacerbated its development problems.
But in the face of one setback after another, and one cost overrun after another, the Marines along with the Air Force and Osprey allies in Congress pressed on.
Finally, in 2007, almost 20 years after its first test flight and still struggling with public perceptions of being unsafe, the Marine Corps variant of the aircraft, the MV-22, was deployed for combat operations in Iraq
In 2015, the Osprey became the only medium-lift helicopter to be used by active-duty Marines, who retired the last of their stalwart CH-46 Sea Knights during ceremony at Camp Pendleton in California in August.
“I don’t want to sound like I have sour grapes,” said veteran CH-46 pilot John Cress. “But while the V-22 has very unique capabilities, I question its robustness in combat.”
The retired Marine and Vietnam veteran is an aviation consultant and teaches how to conduct helicopter accident investigations at the University of Southern California. He said much has yet to be proved with the Osprey, and the decision to retire all of the Marine Corps Sea Knights seems rushed.
“There is that very special series of missions which only the V-22 can do. But then I think that the bread and butter Marine Corps troop movement is better relegated to an aircraft that may not be as fast but is more durable in combat,” Cress said. He thinks the Marines would be better served with a mix of platforms, including a newer version of the tandem rotor CH-46.
Of course, that would mean spending even more money on helicopters. And that would fly in the face of the legacy of fighting on the cheap that the Marines embraced for much of their history.
And there are already significant cost issues associated with the Osprey. Its unique abilities also make it more difficult to maintain: Being able go from hovering like a helicopter to level flight as an airplane requires a whole series moving parts to work perfectly and those parts wear out faster because of it, according to Richard Whittle, an expert on the Osprey.
‘Not your grandfather’s Osprey’
But despite these issues, the Osprey now is successfully flying missions all over the globe for the Marines and Air Force Special Operations.
Even the Navy has jumped back into the Osprey game with the decision to use a variant of the V-22 as a replacement for the aging C-2 Greyhound, a fixed-wing cargo plane used to ferry material and personnel on and off Navy supercarriers at sea. And other nations are now interested in procuring the V-22.
It was a painful process to get this far, but it seems the Osprey has found its groove.
“Today’s Osprey is not your granddad’s Osprey,” said Whittle, who wrote the definitive book on the V-22, “The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey.”
“It’s a much better aircraft now, and they have learned a lot over the years,” he said. “The Osprey has had crashes since it went into service in 2007 in Iraq. But the number is quite low in comparison to other aircraft.”
In combat or training for combat, pilots have to push themselves and their aircraft. And sometimes the result of flying to these extremes are accidents, whatever the airframe. The Marine Corps says that the V-22 has the lowest accident rate of any rotorcraft in its inventory for its first 200,000 flight hours.
“The Osprey has in fact been a very safe aircraft,” according to Whittle.
And because of its versatility, Whittle pointed out that the V-22 has advantages beyond the battlefield.
“They are proving its utility. The Marines flew to Liberia to assist with the Ebola crisis and launched Ospreys from Spain, a huge distance, and arrived and began to help officials there,” he noted. “The Army arrived 60 days later because they had to dismantle their helicopters and put them on ships and the Marines just flew there.”
With their deployment to the Middle East, the Marines of VMM-268 will be able to test the hybrid aircraft’s versatility in real-world conditions.
“Our first and primary mission is all about supporting the Marines on the ground. But the Osprey gives us unique capabilities and so we have a variety of missions we can now do,” said Stoddard, the pilot.
He added that the Marines were still learning new things about the V-22: “We are rewriting the book on the things we can do with it.”