The V-22 Osprey May Have Climbed out of Controversy

New developments may change fortunes of an aircraft with a plagued past.


An MV-22 Osprey landing aboard the USNS Robert E. Peary.

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 "Osprey" has been considered a dirty word in some circles. News headlines demonstrate the aircraft's proven ability to move troops in and out of current combat zones, yet a string of crashes and fatal mishaps over the last two decades still dogs the multi-billion dollar program.

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The V-22's unique abilities and combat tests have been touted as a game changer for covert and expeditionary forces, including the Marine Corps which has thrown its full weight behind the project, and Air Force Special Operations Command, which has committed to a few dozen of its own version.

The Osprey may soon carve out yet another unique job for itself and along the way help step-brother the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, derided by critics for cost overruns and inefficiencies.

Officials familiar with the V-22 program are quick to address what they say is a common misconception: The Osprey is not a helicopter that can fly as a plane. It is an airplane that can hover like a helicopter.

"It's not really the best option for many helicopter missions," says Richard Whittle, a reporter for AOL Defense and author of "The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey." The Osprey is not built to hover for long periods of time and doesn't perform that role as efficiently as a helicopter.

Unique nacelles allow the Osprey to turn its rotors upward to hover, and rotate them forward to cruise.

"What it's very good for is getting places that are far away, fast, where there is no runway," he says. "[It] is giving the Marine Corps and AFSOC a new way of doing missions that is revolutionary in offering the kind of speed and range that the Osprey gives them."

The Osprey gained a reputation as unsafe following a series of crashes during its test phase, beginning with a malfunction in 1991 in which one of the nacelles caught fire. It has become a favored point of contention for locals in Okinawa in recent years, who protest the overall Marine Corps presence there.

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Whittle points out three Ospreys have crashed since Oct. 1, 2001 – one in Afghanistan, one on the USS Iwo Jima off the coast of Morroco and one at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida – killing six. The first two were attributed to pilot error. The last is still under investigation, though experts say this likely won't damage the Osprey's future.

By contrast, 417 U.S. military helicopters have crashed during that time, leading to the deaths of 630 Americans.

"There is a stigma to the Osprey from its 'ugly duckling' period, and because bad news travels faster than good, many people around the world don't realize what a swan it has become," Whittle says. "[The stigma] is undeserved at this point."

The Marine Corps has expressed the greatest interested in the Osprey so far. Its version, the MV-22, will eventually fully replace the aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter as the primary assault transport for troops, as well as equipment and supplies. The Osprey has a range of 860 nautical miles, or roughly six times that of the Sea Knight. It can also cruise more than twice as fast as the CH-46 at 322 miles per hour.

Since first becoming operational in 2007, the Corps have received 201 Ospreys. Of these, 175 are in active service, 10 are undergoing maintenance and 16 are used for training, according to Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Richard Ulsh, of an expected 360 by 2018. On average, three are built per month.

AFSOC has 30 Ospreys as of January 2013 leading up to an eventual 50 by 2017, according to the Naval Air Systems Command, home to Osprey flight testing.

Calls to AFSOC for more details were not returned in time for this report.

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The Marine Corps announced in 2011 that Ospreys would be headed for HMX-1, its unit that oversees the aircraft the White House uses, which are known as "Marine One" when the president is on board. Corps officials say this de facto endorsement helps shed some of the aircraft's perceived troubled history.