For the first time ever, a detachment of V-22 Ospreys deployed from its home base in the United States, flying across the Atlantic Ocean to an exercise in northern Africa.
Four CV-22 Ospreys from the Hurlburt Field, Fla.-based 8th Special Operations Squadron lifted off in October from the sand dunes and palm trees of their Gulf coast base and flew more than 6,000 miles to the rock-strewn deserts of Bamako, Mali.
The aircraft operated for about three weeks there in support of Operation Flintlock - a joint 10th Special Forces Group and North African commando exercise intended to sharpen combat skills and build military-to-military relations.
But it was also a coming out party for the special operations version of the Osprey.
"We were really able to validate the direction we were going -- in training and development-wise - [and] that we were on track," said 8th SOS commander Lt. Col. Eric Hill in a Dec. 18 interview with Military.com. "We're ready for anything at this point. We're ready as a squadron and we're ready as a capability."
An earlier plan to self-deploy a squadron of MV-22s from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 to combat duty in Iraq in 2007 had to be scrubbed because of worries that some of the onboard systems weren't robust enough to accommodate the grueling long-distance flight.
Critics pointed to the Osprey's finicky de-icing system, designed to shed frozen water from the aircraft's wings on cold, high altitude flights, as the main reason why the Marines' Ospreys were shipped to Kuwait by boat rather than giving the plane a chance to prove its advertised capability.
But after months of training and meticulous planning to avoid nasty weather, the pilots and crew from the 8th SOS made it to Mali after two overnight stops and multiple mid-air refuelings - a major achievement for an aircraft the Air Force is purchasing to replace the venerable MH-53 Pave Low.
"Since this was the first time we've flown trans-Atlantic we did do some rehearsals," Hill said. "Not as long in duration, but to rehearse and refine [techniques] to execute that deployment."
While in Mali, the Airmen flew a variety of missions, including - all in one evening - nighttime infiltration and extraction missions over distances of nearly 600 miles, high altitude, low opening parachute drops, and fast-rope commando operations.
Unlike the MV-22, the Air Force version of the Osprey incorporates high-tech terrain-following radar and navigation systems that proved invaluable to pilots during the exercise.
"Due to the weather there there's a lot of smoke, dust and whatnot in the air and under night vision goggles it made it sometimes very difficult to follow the terrain visually," said CV-22 pilot Capt. Luke Sustman. "We definitely relied greatly on our terrain-following radar."
The squadron deployed to Mali with a host of spares and enough maintenance equipment to keep their Ospreys flying. But the rigors of the environment did keep some CV-22s out of the air.
Though squadron officials were quick to say they fulfilled every mission, there were a few hydraulic leaks and other system failures that kept maintainers on their toes.
"We basically went overseas to get an idea of what parts we would need [for sustainment], to test out our shipping processes and needs, [and] to make sure they could meet our demand. And they did," said Tech Sgt. Monte Taylor, a CV-22 maintainer with the squadron.
For the most part, the 8th SOS Airmen had the same compliments for the Osprey that Marine pilots and crew have for their tiltrotors. The speed and range of the Osprey - particularly in a special operations environment where getting in and out quickly is paramount - allowed pilots to run missions other aircraft couldn't.
And wile they all applauded their new, high-tech aircraft, some of the Airmen did so with a tear in their eye.
"Honestly, I'd say it does the mission a little bit better than the Pave Low did," said Master Sgt. Mark Matel, a CV-22 flight engineer who spent nearly 13 years flying in MH-53s. "It kind of breaks my heart to say that."
"But it takes off faster, it stops faster, and it's faster en route," he added. "And speed is a key player to what we're doing out there in today's missions."