Earlier this week, my longtime amigo and dogged defense beat reporter Chris Castelli of Inside the Navy had breakfast (along with a number of other defense reporters) with General Conway, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. According to Chris' report, the commandant said the following:
"You know, I'll tell you there is going to be a crash. That's what airplanes do over time. And we're going to have to accept that when it happens. And we'll hear some of the folks that are not fans of the program rise up, I suspect, when that occurs."
That's an amazing statement for a service chief to make. I don't remember any similar quotes from any generals or admirals about the Super Hornet or the Raptor or any other platform. Obviously the Corps is still relatively gun-shy about this airplane.
What Gen. Conway didn't explain was why an Osprey is going to crash. Well, DT is here to help.
Now let me say up front, I'm a fan of the V-22 and believe in its potential. I want the airplane to kick butt once it gets to the tip of the spear this year. I also know a little bit about the program, having worked as PMA-275's spokesman at NAVAIR for three years (2002-2005) and having flown the sim and gone for flights in the airplane a number of times. But here is a prediction behind Gen. Conway's statement: In the first three years of fleet V-22 operations, the Marines will suffer six Class A flight mishaps with the Osprey. And here's how:
- Although VMMT-204, the Osprey RAG, is up and running, the pilots training there are relatively senior compared to other RAGs. Eventually true "nuggets" will make their way to the fleet and they will do "nugget" things.
- The test pilots (both active duty and civilian) did amazing work during the High Rate of Descent (HROD) phase of developmental test at NAS Patuxent River back in 2002 and 2003. They validated the V-22's vortex ring state (VRS) envelope. (DT readers will remember that VRS was what caused an Osprey to crash near Marana, Arizona back in 2000, killing 19 Marines.) Improvements have been made in the vertical speed displays and aural warning systems. But the fact remains that - while there are no "unknown unknowns" about VRS and that there is a buffer between the operational rate of descent limit of 800 feet per minute and where VRS occurs - the rate at which the V-22 develops a high rate of descent is unique to the V-22. Basically, the crew has to hawk the VSI gauge constantly during a descent. A moment's inattention can result in the vertical speed getting out of hand. (The test pilots actually had an inadvertant VRS entry during HROD testing because they got distracted for a second.) So imagine junior pilots during high op-tempo periods (deployed) at night, on goggles, and operating with not enough sleep (never happens if you follow NATOPS, right?) Yes, this is a training issue in that crews can be taught to watch the VSI readout on the display, but in spite of the comprehensive understanding Osprey crews have of the phenomenon (thanks to the Developmental Test Team at Pax River), somebody's going to be tired and distracted (and maybe under fire) and will enter VRS close to the ground. The outcome won't be good.
- It's unclear at this point whether or not VMM-263 will self-deploy or embark on an amphib like most USMC assault support aircraft. If they conduct sustained flight ops from an LHA or LHD, again, we will see nuggets do nugget-like things. Somebody will fly into the water while on final approach; somebody will plant one against the deck edge. And I guarantee you these things will happen at night or in bad weather.
- Ospreys will operate as multi-ships, so there's a high likelihood of a midair. Once again, when it occurs it'll be at night.
- An Osprey will be lost due to controlled flight into terrain (CFIT).
- An Osprey will have an engine failure (or fire) and be forced into an extended transit to get to somewhere safe to land. During the transit the interconnect drive shaft will fail. (The one true test of the interconnect drive shaft was very early in the program's history. The mechanism failed grossly.) Because the crew was transiting at medium altitude (8,000 feet or so) they will have the opportunity to keep the V-22 in the airplane mode while intercepting a dual-engine failure emergency glide profile. The Osprey will either ditch in the water or belly land in the desert. The "crumple zones" on the nose will work as advertised; the prop-rotors will "broomstraw" (disintegrate instead of turning into flying chunks upon impact). The crew will survive with minor injuries but the Osprey will sustain strike damage.
- The Osprey has survivability features like self-sealing tanks and composite structures that will allow the airplane to take hits and keep on going. However, one of the other features of a composite fuselage is bullets don't bounce off, they pass through like a hot knife through butter. The airplane may survive an encounter with small arms fire, but Marines flying in back might not. Another prediction: Just like the Humvee, the Marines will "up-armor" V-22s in time. They didn't do it to date because that would've kept the airplane from attaining its Key Performance Parameters (payload, range, etc.) during OPEVAL.
So that equals six lost aircraft (seven if you believe the midair will result in the loss of both Ospreys). The next time the topic comes up, Gen. Conway can offer a more complete answer.
Again, you won't hear the Air Force Chief of Staff or Chief of Naval Operations making similar comments about their new platforms, and it's not because they're unrealistic. Obviously, the Marines are still a bit "concerned" about this "revolutionary" technology they're getting, like it or not.
And beyond the mishap potential are concerns about the Osprey's sustainability. Remember, this is a program that hasn't been deployed yet but has obsolescence issues with subsystems. An item - a part of the prop-rotor gearbox, for instance - will fail at a rate not predicted by the engineers. And because they didn't predict it, the manufacture of it will not have been funded at an appropriate rate. Or worse, the company that manufactures the item will have gone out of business years ago (maybe even without the prime contractors' or government's knowledge). There will be none of these items in the supply chain and V-22s will sit idle, perhaps for months on end.
Another maintenance issue: As I mention, the V-22 fuselage is made of composite materials. It's very light, by design. But over time it's going to crack both in places the engineers expect and in places they don't expect. These cracks are going to plague the squadrons for the entire operating history of the Osprey.
And don't forget the hydraulic system: 5,000 psi and titanium tubing. Let's see how well that can be maintained in the field for an extended period.
Another major indicator of USMC confidence for the V-22 will be where they choose to base it during the first deployment. Most likely they won't be based on an amphib, not because of world events but because the Osprey doesn't really fit on any of the amphibs very well (and it also has this potential problem where it warps the flight deck with its exhaust). The "brown water" Navy isn't in a big hurry to have them come aboard.
And as far as where they're based once in theater, let's keep it very simple: If the Marines believe this is the kick ass airplane that has kept it alive and funded for all the years in spite of the setbacks and the loss of life, then they'll base VMM-263 at Bagram or Al Asad. That's where the action is. That's where the enemy is. Otherwise, if they don't fully believe, they'll stick the "Thunderchickens" somewhere around the Horn of Africa and couch the move in terms like "emerging threat."
As I mentioned at the beginning, I'm a supporter of the program. I know many of the crews who will be leading the squadrons on the first deployments. I worked closely with VMX-22 during OPEVAL II. I would put pilots like "Mongo" Seymour up against the best Tomcat drivers I ever rode behind. In fact, I've never met a pilot, crew chief, or maintainer in the Osprey community who didn't blow me away with his or her professionalism and dedication to the mission. I want to be wrong with my prediction. But remember, I didn't bring the subject up; the Commandant of the Marine Corps did.