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MV-22 Osprey wreckage found, 3 Marines dead. Is the Osprey safe?

Following the tragedy we look at arguments for and against the aircraft.

Our hearts go out to the family, friends and unit members of the three Marines who died in last week’s MV-22 Osprey crash off the coast of Australia.

In the wake of this tragedy, some are asking questions about the safety of the Osprey, though at the time of this post it is not clear whether the DOD will direct a grounding of the MV-22 fleet pending a potential investigation.

From Japan Times:

As the U.S. Marine Corps weighed the grounding of its entire air fleet following a deadly Osprey crash off Australia, the top commander of U.S. forces in Okinawa said Tuesday that he sees no need to halt operations of the tilt-rotor aircraft in Japan….

“Ospreys are flying around the world. It is the military’s policy,” Okinawa Deputy Gov. Moritake Tomikawa, speaking to reporters, quoted Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson as saying during their meeting earlier in the day at Camp Zukeran. Read more at source…

The Osprey has been an aircraft plagued with controversy due to a number of fatal accidents throughout its history.

An April 2000 accident resulting in the deaths of all 19 Marines on-board led some in the aviation community to call for the suspension of the Osprey program.  However, the official investigators later pointed to pilot error as a cause of that accident.  From CNN.com:

WASHINGTON — Investigators believe the crash of a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey last month in Arizona was caused by pilot error, CNN has learned. At least one more test is being planned to verify that preliminary finding.

Marine officials Tuesday confirmed that the accident, which took the lives of all 19 Marines on board, was not the result of mechanical malfunction.

Pentagon sources said the Marine V-22 pilot brought the tilt-rotor aircraft down too fast without enough forward motion, resulting in a loss of lift under the right rotor. Read more at source…

MILFEED Editorial Note: We are aware that this accident remains a matter of pain and controversy among many in the community. We do not mean to endorse (or refute) any previous investigative findings regarding pilots’ actions; we merely add these here in the interest of providing historical context.

Separate from the issue of pilot actions, some commentators have explicitly called out functional shortcomings of the Osprey itself.  Navy helicopter pilot Jack McCain (at warisboring.com) wrote:

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….

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. Read more at source…

We recommend reading McCain’s article in its entirety for a balanced view (there is also some spirited debate in the comments section).

However, it should be noted that some believe the pros of the Osprey outweigh the cons. After McCain’s critical piece, the site carried a piece by Vincent Mazzurco in which he generally defended the Osprey, though clarifying that its performance should be viewed in light of the fact that it was designed for different purposes than the CH-46 helicopter:

McCain’s completely factual piece is disingenuous because his argument stops short of demonstrating exactly how the Marines have managed to overcome the often expensive shortcomings of an undeniably impressive aircraft….

But, the Osprey didn’t replace the CH-46—it displaced the CH-46. The older copter made way for an entirely new type of aircraft, not another helicopter. To compare the V-22 to the CH-46 isn’t fair. The MV-22’s added costs don’t buy another medium-lift helicopter. That money pays for an advanced tiltrotor aircraft with far-and-away greater capabilities….

In practice, the Osprey’s upsides are undeniable. In 2011 during the initial phases of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, Marines and sailors in V-22s and AV-8B jump jets quickly recovered a shot-down Air Force F-15 crew from more than 100 miles away. No other aircraft in the area—and certainly not the CH-46—could respond with such speed and at such distance.

What about escort? Well, the Marines work around that, too. I return to the 2011 recovery mission. On that mission, Ospreys didn’t have attached escorts, but instead used their speed and maneuvers to protect themselves. They eventually met up with Air Force and Marine jets providing air security at the recovery site. There are methods by which fast-moving jets can provide over-top security for helicopters … or tiltrotors. It’s not a new problem. Read more (Actually, the V-22 Ain’t Half Bad | War Is Boring).

A 2012 article from Popular Mechanics also presents statistics that reflect favorably on the Osprey (How Safe Is the MV-22 Osprey?).

The article acknowledges some of the well known (and fatal) accidents in the Osprey’s history, but provides some counterbalancing information on the aircraft’s operational history:

The true test of an aircraft’s capability is its combat record. After the Pentagon fixed the problems that caused the crashes during development, the Osprey went into combat, where its record has proved to be remarkably safe. The Osprey has logged more than 100,000 flight hours in some of the most inhospitable conditions imaginable with a safety record that’s actually considered the safest among Marine Corps rotorcraft. There has been only one fatal crash: In 2010 an Air Force CV-22 touched down short of its landing zone in Afghanistan, hit a ditch, and flipped, killing four. Until this week, that was the aircraft’s only fatal accident in the past decade. By comparison, since 2001 six CH-46 Sea Knight helos (the maritime version of the Chinook, which the Osprey is replacing) have crashed, killing 20.

However, Popular Mechanics notes that sustainment has been a problem:

Safety has not been a problem with the Osprey, but maintenance certainly has. A report late last year by the Pentagon’s Department of Operational Test and Evaluation said that from June 2007 to May 2010, the Marine Corps’ Osprey mission-capable readiness was only 53 percent. For an aircraft that costs more than $100 million, that’s unacceptable.

Ultimately, every aircraft we purchase and deploy will have safety incidents sooner or later, whether in training or in combat. Whether the operational capabilities of any platform outweigh the risks in its deployment is a matter that will ultimately be considered by the senior defense officials who request funding to buy and maintain them and the elected representatives who appropriate the funds.

We don’t claim to have the right answer. Hopefully our leaders’ decisions, whether they sustain or abandon any given aircraft, will be fully informed by the perspective of those who actually put themselves in harm’s way piloting or riding in it.

Featured image courtesy of japantimes.co.jp

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