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Ospreys in Iraq: The Commander’s Perspective

By Andrew Drwiega, Defence Helicopter

Reprinted with permission

Osprey

USMC Photo by Cpl. Theodore Ritchie

 

Editor’s Note: Lieutenant Colonel Christopher ‘Mongo’ Seymour is the former commanding officer of the USMC’s VMM-266 ‘Fighting Griffins’, flying the MV-22 in the air support role. He has had an auspicious career that progressed alongside the later testing and development of the Osprey. He talked to Defence Helicopter during a visit to his office beside the flight line at Al Asad Air Base, Al Anbar province, Iraq in March 2009.

Can you begin with a quick illustration of how the squadron prepared to deploy to Iraq?

We were initially slated to join a marine expeditionary unit but found out in January/February 2008 that we weren’t doing that but were going to Iraq instead, so we had to re-plan our pre-deployment training to tailor it towards here. We went through all the lessons learned and started corresponding with the squadrons out here at the time to find out what we needed to do to get ready. We did two deployments out to the western parts of the USA to desert environments – one was to MCAS Miramar in California, Yuma in Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

So what were the lessons learned and how did you get them?

The Marine Corps’ centre for lessons learned consolidates those and anyone can reach in and access that information and that’s what we did. One of the lessons learned from the first squadron out here was that doing this sustained operation 24/7 for six months is very fatiguing. They only had 24 pilots from which to source crews for a busy schedule every day, plus their daily tasking really took its toll on them by the end of the deployment. So we asked for more pilots and we got four more plus the British officer [loan pilot Lt Colin ‘Frenchie’ Griffiths] – so that gave me an extra two crews if I needed it.

The first squadron did all that with 10 MV-22s, the second squadron brought out another two and increased the fleet to 12 aircraft. It didn’t change the operational tempo – still two day sections and one night section – so 50% of the fleet (six aircraft) per day was going to be tasked [SOP was two aircraft per mission].

Osprey

USMC Photo by Sgt. Gustavo Olgiati

Did your requested op tempo match the needs on the ground?

To us at the squadron it was fine. The guys on the ground would have liked a heck of a lot more. The problem is those guys aren’t very efficient with their scheduling. I was told when I got here it’s not about efficiency, it’s about effectiveness. We were doing weekly runs down to Camp Bucca prison, the detention centre on the Kuwaiti border. We’re the only platform here that could do it as there is an LZ there, roughly 300 miles away and we were doing it in about 80 minutes. We land and drop off/pick up detainees and fly them all the way back to Al Asad. We were doing that once or twice a week.

We would send a section of two Ospreys and sometimes you would only carry two people – that seemed very wasteful to send two aircraft. What we have done to [is to try and] break the paradigm that we have to go everywhere as a section of two Ospreys. It’s a helicopter mindset that you have to have two aircraft. So we wanted to carry out the task in some scenarios as a little brother to the C-130 – they don’t task a C-130 in sections and we are the same case.

We have never had to do any unscheduled precautionary landings outside the wire while the squadron has been deployed [the maintenance job at Camp Korean Village – KV – in western Iraq mentioned below was inside a perimeter] and I don’t think the other two squadrons had to either. The issue at KV was a maintenance-induced mistake by a maintainer – the aircraft itself didn’t fail. In the process of checking the aircraft he damaged something [for people looking for faults, the RAF ‘over-maintained’ its Merlin fleet in the first few months of service]. The lad made a mistake, that is all.

We go higher and faster than the rest, so if we have a problem on the way to KV, if an engine quits, we can fly on safely to KV and back again single-engine. We haven’t had any of those scenarios. We don’t have the problems associated with deck-skimming helicopters. So the challenge is trying to get people in the tasking chain to think of the V-22 similarly to a C-130 from the performance aspect, although with the agility of a helicopter. And of course we aren’t limited to runways like the C-130.

Osprey

USMC Photo by Lance Cpl. Lindsay Sayres

Do you feel you are making progress with what you have done?

Getting into that mindset is the problem. And we are still overcoming all the rumours. People all the way down the chain still add conservatism into their calculation of how they will use us and then we show up with $160 million of aircraft to pick up two guys. We just killed 500 dead dinosaurs’ worth of jet fuel to pick up two guys – one’s a criminal and the other one is a lance corporal – you’ve got to be joking me. Previous commanders have complained about this also. Isn’t there a more effective way to use this aeroplane? They set the bar very low.

The other thing is weather. The other squadrons – rightly – refuse to fly when it gets below VFR but over the last three or four months when the weather was lousy – F-18s are taking off and going up north to do their thing – they are punching through it and going up high and coming back. We started looking at this and saying: ‘Where is our tasking today? It’s up on the Syrian/Jordanian border and it’s clear out there – not a dust particle for miles.’ In the past the wisdom has been, don’t launch. But I ask, why not?

In the instruction manuals I can take off in IFR conditions and go up to a VFR location and come back IFR. It’s a 13,000 ft runway out there of which I only need 500 ft – I can find it! The helicopter guys won’t do that. I went over to the CH-46 guys and flew with them on a mission they had that was going to take four hours. The further west we went the worse it got. So we climbed from 500 ft to 1,500 ft and it just got worse and worse. So finally the young aircraft commander had to make the decision – turn back now or risk going on and not being able to get in at the destination. So he made a tough call and turned round to come back IFR – it scared the heck out of him as that isn’t a very comfortable IFR platform.

They asked what I would have done, and I said that after take-off we could have gone straight up to 10,000 ft and got on top of it right away. And when we get there we can decide if we can land or not – and if we can’t, we have plenty of gas and we can come back home.

One of the TTPs that changed over the deployments was most of the places we go to have published instrument approaches and if they don’t – if there are troops in contact or there is somebody’s life on the line – we have the coupled approach capability called ‘Osprey 1’. Push a button and the V-22 flies ‘hands off’ from 10,000 ft in aeroplane mode to a hover over a point at 50 ft without ever touching the controls. So if you are worried about finding your way down through the dust clouds the machine will do it for you and when you get there you look down and see the landing pad – and if you don’t, you push another button and you fly away. We have used that routine extensively out here – at night and when there is dust and you are on [NVGs]. It really is a piece of cake. We are one step away from being unemployed pilots.

Osprey

USMC Photo

Let’s go back to your test pilot days. You had a V-22 ‘game plan’ early on, I believe?

The whole reason I got into the test business was to get into the V-22 programme. When I was a lieutenant at basic school in 1987 I saw one flying over Quantico and said, that’s what I want to do. They said: ‘You’ll be there just in time because in 1990 they are going to introduce it into the fleet.’ And of course that didn’t happen. So I was then told go fly the CH-46s and I’d be in the right position when they make the transition – so that’s what I did. I was very excited about it and that is why I got into test – I have done exactly what I hoped to do. I even got to fly the XV-15 – the one that is now in the Smithsonian in Dulles.

When I first started flying the V-22 it was very disappointing from a reliability and maintainability viewpoint. I was a captain trying to test the V-22 with Tom MacDonald, Steve Grossmeyer, Marty Shubert – all those guys down at Pax River. We worked seven days a week including holidays trying to get the bugs worked out. There were only four EMD aircraft – they were hand-built, there was a lot of discovery learning going on. I was scheduled four or five times a week to fly – and I was lucky to get in it once a week and damn lucky if I got to start it up that day just because of the maintenance problems. And it used to trouble me a lot that the reliability of this thing is going to have to improve dramatically to make it fleet capable.

But the potential was always there. It is very cliché to say speed, range and payload, speed, range and payload… you cannot market that. It is a double-edged sword sometimes. We get compared to the ’46 and how reliable that was. We were doing a [CH-46] mission to Camp Gannon [on the Syrian border] and we picked up four passengers – that was it, that was all we could take. They don’t have the lift, the speed or the range to do even a fraction of what we can do.

Osprey

USMC Photo

How do you think the Osprey will perform in Afghanistan?

The beauty of this aircraft is that we can put 11,500 lb of fuel on board – and we don’t need all that gas to operate in Afghanistan so you don’t have to stop for fuel. So we can trade fuel for payload and altitude. The other beauty about the Osprey is that the ’46 – well even the ’53 (it could do this but they don’t like to) – if it was a hard hit mission, picking up somebody who’s been hit, troops in contact etc, I could go to a high zone at 9,000 or 10,000 ft, drop somebody off and pick them up. And if the mission has been long and maybe I do not have enough gas to get back to Kabul, I could meet a tanker pretty easily and refuel and make it – which is the difference. Once I am in aeroplane mode, hover performance is not an issue any more. I could go to 60,500 lb at 20,000 ft just like that.

Another thing is there has been criticism that the Marine Corps has sheltered it from some heavy missions. Well that’s just not true. The aircraft has been doing everything that we have asked it to do. We are doing everything every other assault platform has been doing – and more. It has not been protected from going into harm’s way. Since we got here we have taken small arms fire, triple A just like everybody else.

Osprey

USMC Photo by Lance Cpl. Kelly Chase

How do you keep up levels of expertise across the board when you go on long deployments like this?

The Marine Corps has this methodology of tracking training and maintenance proficiencies globally. But there are proficiencies we have not kept up with. Shipboard landings – we are going back [to the USA] on the ship and we haven’t landed on one in six to eight months. Mountain area landings – there are some in north-eastern Iraq but this is not a training mission, so taking time out of our schedule here to do that is not going to happen.

The other thing… we maintain aerial refuelling – every pilot in my squadron has a green light right now on day and night aerial refuelling and we have had time to squeeze in with the tankers – 30 minutes here around a mission, so their proficiencies are good for another year. NVGs have been easy to do because we cycle people through the night crew in high and low light. Every time they fly they are tactically updating their proficiencies. Every time we go out we test the gun on the range out back of the camp, we shoot expendables to test the aircraft’s survivability equipment. That’s stuff we can’t do at home – to try and lock on or schedule a range, put the gun in, get the ammo out of the armoury. We don’t get the ammo, we can’t pop chaff and flares on the range because it is closed to that – there are lots of logistics challenges back home – so there are lots of positives to flying here.

And brown-out landings?

It is almost a routine. A CO’s proudest moments are watching his team succeed. We had some lieutenants right out of flight school who we trained to the point where they have become aircraft commanders. Yesterday I was leading a section and my Dash 2 aircraft commander was Rebecca Massy – an aircraft commander in combat, she’s now a captain, with a fellow promoted captain. We went down on the Saudi border and two other zones which are brown-out like you read about, and I felt very confident with them doing the landings and they did a phenomenal job.

We have a display in the cockpit – it’s like a God’s eye view of the landing zone – and it has velocity vectors and acceleration cues, so it’s almost like flying a video game. So you pick up your landing zone, you get to a point in the approach where all the dust starts to come up – if you can’t see the zone but you know that it is clear because you saw it clearly on your approach, you visually integrate that image with coming into the cockpit to view the display.

And on that circular display there is a crosshair, a velocity vector that grows out of that and an acceleration cue, but this tells you if you are drifting forward, you are at 6 kts ground speed and you are heading in this direction, and all you have to do with the sticks is pull the velocity vector back to zero and you have zeroed out all latitude and longitude drift, so all you do – it’s a linear task – is lower yourself down to the pad. But nine times out of 10, by the time you have zeroed this thing out, you look outside and you can see the ground. You don’t believe it until you see it. You come in and create this tremendous dust storm and from the outside it looks God-awful, it’s very unnerving to see that. People say ‘I’m glad I’m not in that’ but when you are in the eye of that storm it is very comfortable.

So you are using that out in the field on missions?

We did a mission a while back which was a coalition force mission – just north of Fallujah where we were catching a high-value target. It was a simultaneous hit on two targets – the target was sleeping in one of two houses a couple of miles apart. It involved three Ospreys, a couple of Hornets, an EA-6B, a UAV and four Cobras daisy-chaining in and out. We landed simultaneously next to the two target houses, disembarked a joint force of 22 US Marines and Iraqi army/police who went in to catch the bad guys. The third aircraft was flying overhead acting as a ‘sparrow hawk’ to catch squirters. Sure enough – they had a couple who jumped out of a window, into a vehicle and made off. So the third Osprey swooped down and landed in front of the vehicle and their team leapt out and made that arrest.

The VIP missions have been a great success. Al Anbar province’s Governor Ma’amoun loves it – it’s a status symbol to him to arrive in an Osprey.

What do you say to people who question the aircraft’s survivability?

We normally transit up between 8,000-12,000 ft where you can’t see it or hear it from the ground. So nobody knows to look up – and even if they did a grey V-22 on a blue background is virtually impossible to spot. We have several tactical approaches that we use. Let me just tell you this, when I was in the test world I did a one-for-one comparison between a V-22 and an AH-1. The set-up was an array of acoustic sensors in a target area. We had to fly over the sensors on the same path, type of day etc.

So we fly the V-22 at 200 ft and 220 kts over these sensors at a five-mile range. Then the Cobra did it. The unclassified data showed that if you were at the target you would hear the Cobra two minutes before he reached you; with the V-22 it wasn’t heard until 10 seconds beforehand [the author experienced and can verify the quietness of the aircraft over several days at Al Asad with Ospreys, Sea Knights, CH-53s, Hueys and Cobras flying in and out during the period – the V-22 was the quietest of the lot].

How about the operational readiness of the aircraft while you have been here at Al Asad?

We have run between 60-80% capable every day – which is very dependent on parts. And that’s not dependent on not knowing how to fix it, it is just waiting on the parts. They did their best in trying to resource the right number and types of parts here but they just didn’t know what they didn’t know – what was going to break and how often and what to put here [it should be remembered that these aircraft are still only in their first 18 months of operational flying]. The other part of the problem is that the community is still so small that Bell/Boeing did not anticipate which parts to order, so sometimes it takes a while for them to get the parts made – until we get a larger programme and a larger pile of spare parts that is going to continue to be a problem.

Another interesting thing is that we get compared a lot to other platforms. The usual comment is along the lines of ‘why are you at 60% mission capable when the ’46s and the ’53s and the Hornets are always at 80-100%?’ Well, the difference between my platforms and those platforms is that they have a depot-level capability out here – deep level maintenance, which is significant because their parts situation is not phenomenally better than ours, but when they put their aircraft down into scheduled depot maintenance they take that aircraft out of reporting status – so that changes their percentages.

I had no depot maintenance so I had 12 airplanes on reporting status every day. One is a canned bird, because I need that DEU or actuator and when I order it off the supply chain it isn’t going to be here for two weeks – and I can’t wait two weeks so I pull it off this sacrificial aircraft and that aircraft goes down for parts. The other communities do the exact same thing but their aircraft is out of reporting – mine isn’t.

So there were no aircraft down for maintenance issues that you weren’t expecting?

That’s right. But let’s remember that these aircraft have been flying hard out here, compared to the Ospreys at home. These fly 45-60 hours per month; those at home fly 20-30 – so we are doubling the utilisation rate and we are discovering some life maintenance issues that the rest of the community hasn’t had yet. Of the 12 aircraft here, eight are now over 1,000 hours on their airframes so you get to that life cycle in any weapons system.

One of the things we have discovered since we were out here is dust intrusion on wiring harnesses. We had one problematic harness in the nacelle that was failing fairly frequently. My avionics Marines were taking those harnesses out – it had a hundred little wires. They were going through those like brain surgeons, repairing nicks and chafing on them. What was happening was that the shielding was not impervious to dust, so the dust was getting in there and rubbing with the vibration and grinding the insulation off, resulting in shorts. So they would peel out all the wires to find the bad one – and that was taking a phenomenal amount of time. My avionics department carries out 50-60% maintenance on the squad because it is an electric aeroplane – fly by wire – with a lot of avionics and electrical current on it. So we put on brand new harnesses and send the old ones back.

Another problem, the central de-icing distributor is up on the rotor hub and it distributes electric current out to the rotor blades – so they were having some fatigue life problems because of the hours we are putting in. So we were doing local repairs there and that was taking too much time. So we were putting all new ones on again to save maintenance time.

How have your young Marines reacted to the challenges of these maintenance issues?

My guys enjoy the challenge of discovering new things and figuring out ways to fix them – you will see that throughout the fleet and as it becomes more prolific throughout the assault support community. My experience was initially that if there was something wrong with the aeroplane it was Bell/Boeing’s problem – you would phone some genius at Bell and tell him to come and fix his damn aeroplane. People just naturally think everything will work out of the box – from a new Toyota to an $80 million aeroplane, the thing should just scab over and heal itself! And it should never break – but that’s not the case.

We do have civilian contractors here – fleet support representatives – one from Bell, one from Boeing and one from Rolls-Royce. I have an additional 10 contract maintenance support guys, and those folks are avionics, airframes and flight line technicians and repair people – and they have integrated right into the maintenance department with the Marines. They asked me whether I wanted that before deploying, and I looked at it as insurance for the unknown.

These guys have 20 years plus of aircraft maintenance experience, so what you are providing is mentorship for the young 18/19-year-old corporal – his paradigm is that ‘I bought a Corolla and drove the heck out of it so this should work every time for the money. Call Bell because it’s not in my book on how to fix that.’ But the maintenance guy says he knows it isn’t in his book – but if you read this book and this book you can see how to fix it. Not all problems are defined in one book.

I can tell you from a commander’s perspective, that young people joining the Marine Corps after three or four years have the choice of getting out. We have no problems in people re-signing. I tell them it is my duty to get them to stay, but also that they are on the ‘ground floor of Microsoft’ right now. This is going to be the largest community in Marine Corps aviation. We are replacing every ’46 and some of the ’53s with V-22s. There are going to be 360 of these aircraft in 10 years.

I am losing a crew chief who is going to work as a contractor down in Florida as a CV-22 crew chief. But all they have to do is continue to do a good job and the opportunities will open up in front of them and they will be able to move all around the country. Twenty to thirty of my Marines already have orders to move across the country to help stand up the first west coast squadron – flying Okinawa and Guam is the future there so it makes it easy to keep them interested.

Finally, what should other nations thinking of taking this aircraft really consider?

There are plenty of selling points. We are being replaced here [at Al Asad] by CH-47s and they can carry a lot of stuff but they can’t carry it far or fast – well, they can take it far but it is going to take them all day. A typical mission from here to KV [200 miles] or down to the borders takes us three hours. That is going to be an eight- or nine-hour mission for them, and they may have to spend the night some place if the weather closes in. It is frustrating to me why the Army has not got back on board the V-22 programme. It’s no secret they have not done so well in acquisition. They are still buying the ’47 – that’s not a leap ahead in technology. The Army’s flying Black Hawks like jeeps in downtown Baghdad, they use them here in Al Anbar – they are slow but reliable – but to me they are missing out on the dotcom revolution, so maybe one day they will wake up. (May 2009)