ABOARD THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER CARL VINSON -- The end of an era in naval aviation is starting this summer.
The point is to prove that the Osprey can do the job of delivering supplies and people to Navy flattops.
Starting in 2021, the Osprey will begin to replace the C-2A Greyhound, the trusty, no-frills airplane in use since the late 1960s.
"This is the future," Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, commander of the Navy's air forces, told Vinson sailors on Tuesday, after arriving aboard on an Osprey himself.
Shoemaker said the decision, cemented last year by the secretary of the Navy, takes into account cost and collaboration with the Marine Corps, which developed the unique "tiltrotor" Osprey for its needs starting in the 1990s. The Bell Helicopter-Boeing Osprey apparently beat out Northrup Grumman's proposal to extend the C-2 line.
"We looked at lots of things," Shoemaker told reporters Tuesday. "From affordability, total ownership cost of the (aircraft) platforms into the future. The fact that we had a production line already going with Osprey, and an opportunity to partner with the Marine Corps, that made the most sense."
Generations of sailors have flown aboard the C-2 Greyhound, which lands using a hook and wires to stop abruptly on a carrier's flight deck.
That "tailhook" landing is something one doesn't soon forget -- and it has been the hallmark of aircraft carrier aviation. A Navy flier's ability to "catch the wire" on the flight deck is what makes carrier pilots a breed apart, in the minds of naval aviators.
That will change for the next generation of carrier onboard delivery, or COD, pilots.
"You have a certain nostalgia for your aircraft, and whatever skill you can do with that aircraft," said Cmdr. Clarke Cramer, a Navy C-2 pilot who has a few hundred tailhook landings on his resume.
"It is a pretty awesome experience to be able to land a fixed-wing aircraft on a carrier. We spend a lot of time and effort doing that. ... For us, it's going to be the shift (away) from being a tailhook pilot, but you are still a carrier aviator."
The Navy saw the need for dedicated delivery planes for its aircraft carriers after World War II, said Karl Zingheim, historian at the USS Midway Museum in downtown San Diego. Converted TBM Avenger torpedo bombers were the first aircraft chosen.
"Up through World War II, the Navy seemed to be satisfied with other means of delivering people and supplies to carriers, such as visits to ports and underway transfers between ships," Zingheim said.
"By the 1950s, with carriers routinely spending more time at sea and in far-off regions, the need to have a more robust transport service ... became obvious."
The change to a helicopter-style aircraft means more flexibility for the Navy. The Osprey doesn't require a carrier to be at "flight operations," which takes a crew of roughly 50 sailors overseeing the equipment required to land and launch airplanes, Navy officials said. It takes only five people to land the MV-22.
Other advantages of the Osprey: It can land supplies at night, something the Navy didn't attempt with the C-2. It also uses cargo containers, which can be offloaded by forklift instead of by hand.
The Osprey also has more lift power -- 10,000 pounds versus 8,500 pounds, Shoemaker said. The flight range is about the same.
However, the Navy is giving up three seats for passengers and some cargo volume with the MV-22. Also, the C-2's cabin is pressurized so it can fly at higher altitudes. And, the Osprey's "downwash," or force of air from the rotor blades, and the heat on the deck from the tiltrotor engines are something the Navy will have to contend with.
Shoemaker said those issues can be handled. For example, the engines can be rotated so they aren't always pointed at the fight deck, he said.
The Navy plans to buy 24 Ospreys as carrier delivery aircraft between 2018 and 2020, according to this year's budget.
The earliest the Osprey is expected to be ready to deploy aboard a carrier is 2021, when the Navy plans to achieve what's known as "initial operating capability."
The proof-of-concept work on the Vinson is scheduled to finish this week -- the Navy is calling it a "fleet battle experiment." Then the Center for Naval Analysis will look at the data and determine the next steps. A smaller test was done on the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman in 2013.
Starting in October, the first C-2 Greyhound pilots, crew members and mechanics will be trained on Ospreys at New River Marine Corps Air Station in North Carolina.
Apparently, it's not tough for an aviator to learn the tiltrotor technique. The C-2 pilots will follow in the footsteps of Marine Corps C-130, F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier pilots who have switched from flying traditional airplanes to the hybrid Osprey, officials said Tuesday.
"I'd say it's not something that you are used to," said Col. George B. Rowell IV, a Marine Corps F/A-18 pilot who is now commanding officer of the VMX-1 Osprey test squadron in Yuma, Ariz. "It's well within the realm of doable."
The C-2 is expecting to stop flying after 2026.
The Marine Corps Osprey got a rocky start with a handful of fatal crashes when the aircraft was in the development stage.
But the MV-22 largely proved itself in recent years over the vast expanses of Afghanistan, where it was able to move Marines in and out of battle zones faster, and therefore, more safely.
The Osprey -- which can fly like an airplane or a helicopter, as needed -- has been landing on the decks of amphibious assault ships since at least 2009. Amphibious ships have short flight decks -- 800 feet -- compared to an aircraft carrier's 1,000-foot flattop.
The Navy has contracted with the aircraft's manufacturer to extend the range of the fuel system and the radio, plus add a public-address system in the back of the aircraft.