Well, I've been covering the V-22 Osprey for nearly 10 years as a defense reporter. It started for me in 1999 as an intriguing new platform. A hybrid airplane/helicopter that sated my sense of fascination with leap-ahead technology, the Osprey was just to the point of being fielded when a horrific crash in the spring of 2000 in Arizona killed 19 Marines mostly infantrymen who were passengers on a test flight.
Despite a firm stance from the Corps that the Osprey could still be fielded, another crash in December of that year shocked the service into shape and the program was put on hold.
Over the intervening years, mainstream reporters grew increasingly skeptical of the aircraft, aligning with think-tankers, former DoD testers and the rest of the trade press against what they saw as an overly complex and accident-prone aircraft.
Thats part of the reason that, despite all those years writing stories about the Osprey, I had never ridden in one. Until last week.
A short disclaimer is probably in order here. I have always been a contrarian when it comes to the Osprey. I do not see any alternative but to make tiltrotor technology work. Helicopters have a physical limit. They cant go more than a certain speed because of the drag of the rotors. Now Im sure Ill get some people much smarter than me to argue this, but when it comes down to it, helicopters are just not going to cut it for much longer. We need the Osprey, and I have always believed the V-22 would revolutionize STOVL flight and be very effective for the Corps.
Now, back to the test flight.
After a short press conference announcing its first deployment, the Marine Corps set up a press junket for reporters to take a ride on the tiltrotor transport and see for themselves how different the plane is from the helicopter its due to replace the CH-46 Sea Knight.
On April 13, 20 of us flew off the Pentagon helipad on a Sea Knight that was part of the presidential fleet. While the interior was a lot nicer than the 46s Id flown in during deployments to Iraq and elsewhere, it still performed like the old phrogs I knew and (grudgingly) loved: slow and low
We landed on a field at Quantico and watched as our CH-46 departed and two Ospreys came screaming overhead. Their speed and size was jaw-dropping. The rotors are huge and they moved across the sky much quicker than a 46 ever could.
After a short interview with the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Paul Rock, it was time for the ride. We filed onto the aircraft, strapped ourselves in and lifted off. I kept my eyes out the back window and also scanned the small side window to see how the nacelles (the engine and rotor housings at the end of each wing) were oriented. We flew most of the first minutes of the flight with the nacelles at a sort of 45 degree pitch.
Then it all changed.
As soon as the pilot shifted the engines to full forward, transitioning to conventional flight, the Osprey lurched ahead, pulling all of us toward the rear of the aircraft. It was really hard to stay upright the thrust was so dramatic. It reminded me a bit of a catapult shot off an aircraft carrier (notice in the video how fast the ground flows below, and see how hard it is to keep the camera steady when the Osprey banks to the right or left).
We jinked and jived over the rolling woods of Quantico, then evened out and glided in for a quick landing in a pretty large field. I noticed the whiff of burning grass as we settled down, an indication of the intense heat streaming out of the powerful engines in helicopter mode. We hovered a bit more turning left and right then lifted out dramatically and sped ahead in conventional flight. After more banking and turning (with a few of my colleagues making use of the airsick bags handed out before the flight) the Osprey alighted once more on the field where we began.
Ill let you judge for yourself how impressive the Ospreys flight characteristics are (please forgive how raw the video is). But Ill tell you something, every single one of us even the pukers was beaming when we emerged from the plane. It was one of the most exciting rides Ive ever taken and Ive taken some pretty cool ones.
I wish the program luck. But the plane is going to take some getting used to for infantrymen who aren't used to flying all the time.
Maybe the Corps should stock up on airsick bags to prepare for the first deployment.