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This article was Originally Published on Oct 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 5

Tilt-Rotor In The Balance

The star-crossed, but popular V-22 aircraft appears to be rising from the ashes of two recent, tragic crashes - but the saga is still unfinished.

By Mickey McCarter

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Appearing to have risen from the ashes of two recent tragic crashes, America’s star-crossed V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft—a “transformational” hybrid helo-plane eagerly sought by three U.S. military services—is currently undergoing closely watched Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force tests at two locations.

Returned to flight testing seventeen months after its December 2000 grounding in the wake of a crash that killed four crewmembers (a previous crash had killed 19 Marines), the MV-22, the Marine Corps version of the aircraft, reportedly performed well in its paces at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station proving grounds. Companion flight tests of the CV-22—the Air Force variant, eyed as a special operations/electronic warfare platform—also were recently approved, with Mid-September trials at Edwards A.F.B. still being assessed.

Of the nine tilt rotors reserved for testing, Patuxent River NAS holds seven MV-22s and Edwards AFB has two CV-22s—all potential subjects in a test regime that hopes to save a controversial program from what caused the December 2000 crash: hydraulics and flight control software problems.

But as the world’s first production tilt-rotor aircraft, the Osprey represents a “force multiplier” for the U.S. military in the aircraft’s ability to take flight like a helicopter, rotate its propellers 90 degrees, and then fly like an airplane. The Navy-Marine Corps team likes the design for amphibious operations and littoral, over-the-horizon warfare; and the Air Force sees the ambidextrous, 275 nm/hr, low/high-flying (27,000 feet maximum) platform as ideal for special operations.

Designated engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) aircraft No. 10, one Patuxent River MV-22 logged 35 hours of flight testing in 15 flights this summer. Here the focus was on the Osprey’s hydraulic system, which was rigorously monitored with mandatory inspections every 35 hours of flight time. Frequent and exacting, these check-ups were characterized in microcosm by Osprey Program Spokesman Gidge Dady as fixated on “every piece of tape that protects the hydraulic tube from the clamp securing it into place.”

In one of those flights, the Osprey flew for about two-and-a-half hours, reaching speeds of 250 knots and flexing its rapid descent capabilities. “The long-awaited return to flight was a success,” said V-22 Program Manager and Marine Colonel Dan Schultz after the test. “The Osprey not only performed what today’s test plan called for but exceeded our wildest expectations.”

A second MV-22, with enhanced hydraulics and flight-control software, will begin flight testing at Patuxent River NAS in late September. This aircraft, designated No. 8, will further test Osprey’s rate-of-descent characteristics. That testing is expected to last several months. And, according to Dady, “As early as October, a third aircraft—a low-rate initial production aircraft with modifications—could be joining the test team at Patuxent River. This aircraft will be used for pilot training, paratroop and cargo air delivery testing, as well as new mission computer software evaluation.”

As for the Air Force, its CV-22 team spent most of its time this summer testing the hybrid’s electronics at the base’s Benefield Anechoic Facility, where suspension of the aircraft from the ceiling allows realistic electronics systems tests without taking the aircraft aloft.

“The test program has been alive,” CV-22 program spokesperson John Haire said. “Because of the modeling and simulation capabilities that exist in our Electronic Warfare Test Directorate, we can do a wide array of testing without having to fly the aircraft. Every thing I have been told indicates that all the test points that were done gave good data.”

Osprey’s Pedigree

Bell Helicopter, a division of Ft. Worth-based Textron Inc., manufactures the V-22 aircraft. In August, the Department of Defense announced that the Bell-Boeing Joint Program Office at Patuxent River NAS would receive about $1.5 billion in contract modifications for the continued production of nine more MV-22s and two more CV-22s. Work on the new MV-22s is expected to be completed in September 2004; the two CV-22s are expected to be ready by October 2005.

But before the latest award, DoD had already spent $12.6 billion on Osprey development over the past two decades, with 20 built to date. Full production of the Osprey would call for an estimated additional $33 billion to fulfill all orders for the aircraft, which, according to Bell Helicopter Textron, consist of 425 MV-22s for the Marines, 50 CV-22s for the Air Force, and 48 HV-22 for the Navy. 

With eight times the number of V-22s on order than any other service, the Marine Corps obviously believes in the tilt-rotor’s design. Accordingly, Marine Corps Commandant General James Jones testified before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year that “the V-22 Osprey remains the Corps’ number one aviation acquisition priority. Recent actions in Central Asia have only reinforced the immediate need for this truly transformational capability.” Furthermore, in its final report of May 2001, DoD’s official V-22 review panel also predicted that the aircraft would provide unparalleled support against terrorists.

And both DoD and NASA have concluded that the tilt-rotor technology is sound, according to Jones. Specifically, Jones added, “The Osprey’s superior range, speed and payload will give Marines and special operations forces the ability to accomplish combat missions and other operations from distances previously unattainable, with response times far faster than possible with other airframes.”

Navy Secretary Gordon England also defended the Osprey after its May 29 test. England called the successful flight “a baby step, but it’s a giant baby step…If it works, if it does everything it’s supposed to do and the program’s affordable, it’s a unique capability for the nation—and we will go forward with it. If it doesn’t work, the commandant and I will kill the program. Both of us believe [however, that] it will meet its objectives.”

The Air Force likewise has faith in its program. “The CV-22 is a special operations aircraft,” Haire said. “With it we can go deep and we can go fast. We can get in and out undetected, on target, on time, every time. If the CV-22 were available back in 1980, when we tried to rescue our hostages in Iran, the rescuers could have completed the mission in one night.”

Bell Helicopter itself touts impressive figures in its V-22 program materials, including the facts that the Osprey has 50 percent less exposure time to enemy combatants when traveling to and from landing; that it is 75 percent quieter than helicopters; and that it is the only U.S. tactical transport aircraft pre-equipped with built-in nuclear, biological and chemical safeguards.

Rummy’s Reticence

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, however, has been less willing to comment on DoD’s priorities for funding individual programs, declining as recently as August 9 to address the merits of the V-22 aircraft in isolation.

“I think that it would be wrong to think that any single program’s decisions are going to be based solely on that program,” Rumsfeld said, alluding to “enterprise management” and “interoperability” priorities in today’s military. “Ideally, programs would be analyzed in a joint war-fighting capacity in the process of deciding which technologies take precedence and, thus, require funding over others.” But, in apparent acknowledgement of the precariousness of the V-22 program, the defense secretary did say that the department will closely monitor tilt rotor tests scheduled for the rest of the year as part of its FY 2003-and-beyond budget decision-making.

Rumsfeld has, however, endorsed the technological concept behind the Osprey, once saying, “I believe that anyone who truly understands tilt-rotors, understands how potentially transformational this is as a technology on the 21st-century battlefield.” Given all this, then, it is unlikely that a final decision on continued Osprey funding will be made before the administration presents its FY 2004 budget in February 2003. 

In the interim, however, the Senate—largely adopting a House-passed measure pushed by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-CA—did endorse a fiscal 2003 defense authorization bill that set total DoD procurement at $71.5 billion, including $1.5 billion for the 11 V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft currently under construction. Bush’s original FY 2003 budget, however, had proposed about $2 billion in continued funding for the V-22 aircraft—despite an unsuccessful attempt on the part of Vice President Dick Cheney to derail the program when he was defense secretary.

Osprey’s Ordeal

Congress remains supportive of Osprey, with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-PA; Sen. Bill Frist and Sen. Fred Thompson, both R-TN; and Rep. Lewis—all of whose districts share in V-22 work—leading the charge. Acknowledging Osprey’s checkered history, however, Congress’s 2002 National Defense Authorization Act mandated that tilt-rotor production cannot exceed “minimum sustaining” rates until the secretary of defense certifies that the Osprey is safe.

In addition—following the recommendations of DoD’s V-22 review panel—the defense authorization act required that the secretary of defense certify:

  • A list of specific Osprey improvements responsive of the problems that caused the crashes;
  • That Osprey has achieved reliability levels consistent with those required of other fleet aircraft;
  • That Osprey’s reliability extends to joint operations with other V-22s as well as with other helicopters and aircraft;
  • That Osprey’s operational capabilities covers conditions that include “unimproved terrain and facilities” and the imposition of external loads, as well as the ability to drop off and pick up personnel both inside and outside hostile zones.

In compliance with these congressional conditions restricting V-22 production and resumed flight testing, DoD recently not only delivered the necessary certifications but also addressed concerns outlined in an August 2001 NASA report on tilt-rotor aeromechanics. It was a report that Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Pete Aldridge considered to be at the heart of the V-22’s problems.

“The engineering people who built the Osprey grossly underestimated the difficulties of this tilt-rotor, dual-rotor phenomena,” Aldridge said, “and we did not lay out a flight test program that was adequate to prove that fact. Now we have one. I think we’ll confidently prove one way or the other whether or not that design is adequate.”

And, according to Aldridge, Osprey’s design is the crux of the matter, for tilt rotor operations have inherent problems. Osprey faces problems that all helicopters face, he recently told reporters: The blades stall under some conditions, but helicopter pilots generally have the opportunity to recover from stalled blades. “The problem [with Osprey] is [that], when this happens on this airplane, you lose control. Once it starts to roll, you can’t correct it.”

Consonant with Aldridge’s remarks and signaling that tilt-rotor aeromechanics could live or die with the fate of the V-22, Bell Helicopter Textron announced in March that it has suspended work on another tilt-rotor project—the BA609—to focus on development of Osprey’s tilt-rotor technology.

And at Edwards AFB, Haire and his team are similarly focused—but believe that the CV-22 will ultimately prove its worth.

“To the most junior maintenance technician here, everyone in the CV-22 program loves the aircraft,” Haire said. “It is not criticized in hangar talk here by other programs [personnel]. It is seen as a full partner in our flight test mission [here] as the USAF’s center of excellence in RDT&E.”

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