The V-22 Is the Future
Tiltrotors are faster, safer & better than helicopters
I’ve been a military assault support pilot for almost two decades. I’d rather fly into combat in the MV-22B Osprey than any other rotorcraft in the world.
Considering the aircraft’s reputation in some quarters, that statement might be surprising.
The usual critics have always been skeptical of the aircraft, but some of its more vehement critics have been helicopter pilots.
That’s no surprise. Like the Luddites of 19th-century England, people with a stake in current technologies often try to tear down the new techs that could make old systems obsolete.
Before the tank proved itself during the latter days of World War I, many soldiers were skeptical. Prior to that war, horse cavalry was the elite branch in most militaries.
Horses were a proven “technology.” Cavalry had refined their tactics over centuries. How could some mechanized abomination replace them? Early tanks broke down frequently and even endangered their crews. But with development, the tank was able to do things that no other weapon—and certainly no horse—ever could do.
The world never would go back.
The H-34 helicopter entered service in 1953. It could carry 16 troops at a maximum speed of 107 knots a distance of just under 200 miles.
In 1974, the H-60 Blackhawk entered service. In its basic configuration, it carried 11 troops at a maximum speed of around 150 knots just over 300 miles. The Blackhawk still is the predominant helicopter in U.S. service. In other words, in 60 years helicopter performance barely has budged.
Enter the Osprey. It cruises at more than 220 knots and can exceed 250 in level flight. Its range without additional tanks or aerial refueling is more than 700 miles. It carries up to 24 troops.
Those specs don’t just allow the Osprey to do old missions faster—they make possible missions that were impossible before. The Marine Corps has a unit called Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response, based in Spain.
With its Ospreys and tanker support, it can reach trouble spots anywhere in Europe and most of Africa on short notice—and has demonstrated this several times. Previously, responding to these events would have required an amphibious ship to stream for days to get aircraft within range.
The Osprey can do things helicopters physically just can’t. High-speed, long-range casualty-evacuation, aerial delivery and command and control are just a few other new missions. And in coming years the V-22 might also handle aerial refueling and carrier on-board delivery.
There’s a reason the deployment rate for Marine Osprey squadrons is among the highest in the military—every commander sees what the aircraft can do and wants that capability.
The Marine Corps is creating two more SPMAGTF-CRs to keep up with the demand. Make no mistake. The Osprey is what makes this possible.
It’s also just damn good at its main job—flying troops and supplies into combat. It’s less vulnerable to the enemy than any of its competitors. Which is easier to hit? An aircraft traveling at a few hundred feet and just over 100 knots, or one traveling more than 220 knots at altitudes from 200 feet to well over 10,000, depending on the threat?
The V-22 is far more maneuverable than legacy aircraft, in spite of what critics say who’ve never looked at aircraft manuals or energy-maneuverability diagrams.
Even if it does get hit, the Osprey is more survivable than helicopters. It can fly all day on one engine in airplane mode. It has three separate hydraulic systems and three flight control computers to ensure controllability.
To prevent fires, its fuel tanks fill with inert nitrogen as they empty. The crew and passenger seats stroke to help them survive impacts. There are a lot of things that keep an Osprey safe in situations that would destroy other aircraft.
When I first flew a CH-46E into Afghanistan in 2001, it took a 50-50 mix of luck and skill to land in a “brownout,” where rotor wash blows up dust, blocking the pilot’s vision.
I tried to set up on a good profile before entering the dust cloud and to time my power application to cushion the landing. Most helicopters still do it this way—and mishaps are frequent. During a few short months in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2002, my squadron broke nose wheels off a CH-46E and a CH-53E while landing. One of our Cobras ripped its skids off. A Huey rolled over in a dust cloud, totaling the aircraft.
The V-22, on the other hand, has electronic systems that allow the pilot to see the aircraft’s drift in a hover even if he can’t see the ground. He can even engage a coupler—a kind of autopilot—and have the aircraft establish a perfect hover for him, if the situation requires. This technology makes desert landings much safer.
One thing non-pilots seldom appreciate is the importance of good flying characteristics, modern cockpit design and instrument flight capability. The Osprey is stable and relatively easy to fly. Jet pilots learning to hover in V-22s joke that they don’t know why helicopter pilots always make such a big deal about hovering, since it’s so simple.
Hovering is simple—in a V-22. Up and away, legacy helicopters avoid instrument flight—flying in clouds and haze—like the plague. They even have a mantra of steps on how to deal with it. Fly lower, slower, tighter in formation, circumnavigate, land.
The V-22 is a stable instrument flight platform with a modern autopilot and avionics. The systems allow the aircraft to work in a wider range of weather conditions, and even easily penetrate instrument flight conditions as a flight of two or more aircraft. That’s something you seldom do in conventional helicopters. These characteristics allow the Osprey to go where most helicopters can’t.
True, the V-22 is an emerging aircraft and has had some problems. Some are legitimate. Critics have blown out of proportion some others. All are improving. These old issues have caused a vicious confirmation bias against the Osprey on the part of many outside observers. If an H-60 waves off, everyone just shrugs it off as pilot error. If a V-22 waves off, it’s an indictment of the aircraft, the program and every Osprey unit.
Are there things that helicopters can do better than an Osprey can? Probably. For example, the tiltrotor’s downwash causes a huge spray when hovering low over water, so search-and-rescue missions are harder—unless you think you need a long-range capability, in which case maybe that trade-off is worth it.
Other aircraft make better fast-rope platforms in confined spaces than a V-22 does. If you were so inclined, you could probably find a few other missions where a helicopter works better than a tiltrotor does.
In the same manner, there are missions where horses are better than tanks or trucks are. A tank will never make it down a narrow single-track trail or travel for days on a feed bag full of hay. Horses don’t mechanically break down. That doesn’t mean the military should bring back cavalry dragoons.
The Osprey is the first of the new generation of vertical lift aircraft. Each iteration of Osprey gets better as Bell-Boeing produces more. Succeeding production blocks have major improvements in equipment, electronics and reliability.
There will be tiltrotors after the Osprey, be they very similar aircraft like the Agusta-Westland AW-609 and the Bell V-280 or competing technologies like those in the Sikorsky X-2 and Eurocopter X-3.
The day of the military helicopter is passing. The Osprey had its birthing pains, but now high-speed vertical lift is out of its infancy and rapidly maturing.
Carl Forsling is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University. He is an MV-22B instructor pilot and was previously a CH-46E instructor. He has deployed overseas with both aircraft. Follow him on Twitter at @carlforsling.