Changing the face of assault
by Tony Osbourne, Defence Helicopter/ Rotorhub
Reprinted with Permission
Boeing Photo by Bob Ferguson
The V-22 Osprey has had to work hard to earn the trust and respect of the USMC and those who will end up working alongside it. Tony Osborne visited the home of the Osprey at Marine Corps Air Station New River in North Carolina, USA, to find out why.
Lt Col Anthony ‘Buddy’ Bianca doesn’t have to try hard to sell the benefits of the V-22 Osprey. Having worked on the trials that brought the machine into service and taken the type into its first conflicts, he’s seen first-hand how the type is revolutionising the way the Marines fly into the fight and stands by the machine he has helped nurture into service.
“The V-22 has changed the way we think about assault transport,” explained Bianca, speaking to journalists at New River Marine Corps Air Station, often described as the spiritual home of the Osprey.
“We are trying to move somebody, go someplace that someone doesn’t want us to go, and this can be done more effectively with the Osprey,” he said.
The MV-22 is quickly replacing the CH-46 Sea Knight. The type has all but disappeared from the East Coast squadrons and, now that Ospreys have started to arrive in southern California, the ‘Frog’s’ days are increasingly numbered. The aircraft has seen combat in Iraq and proved itself on humanitarian missions in Haiti and Honduras, but it is in Afghanistan that the aircraft is being tested to its limits.
The Osprey is able to deliver 24 combat troops anywhere within 300 nautical miles and loiter for an hour over the battlefield. The ageing Frog, on the other hand, carries just 12 troops, can fly them a little over 165km and remains on station for only ten minutes of loiter time.
Bianca and fellow marines love the aircraft. “The USMC is using these aircraft for everything,’ he said. ‘We have a pretty robust platform in the Osprey. We make it hard for the enemy to shoot at us because we can fly way above the range of small-arms fire, and we are not difficult to escort, as some critics have claimed.”
In Afghanistan, mission planners have a number of options available to them. They can send attack helicopters ahead of the Osprey, which allows them to deliver the close support before the troops arrive, or the type can be escorted in by USMC Harriers or US Air Force A-10s, which can clear the way before the aircraft arrives.
One can easily imagine the psychological effect of seeing Ospreys making a rapid descent into the landing zone with Harriers diving in over the top strafing. But on other missions, the Osprey has been neither seen nor heard until it’s too late. Crews have been able to make use of the aircraft’s noise signature to mask its arrival. Only when the aircraft tiltrotors are moved into the vertical position does the noise become truly audible.
“You can hear the aircraft perhaps one or two miles out,” said Bianca, “but then you’ve probably got one minute 15 seconds to think about how to deal with the 24 marines we’re about to put on the ground.”
Such tactics have allowed the marines to capture Taliban commanders whose troops have been taken by surprise by an Osprey-led troop insertion. Other missions have seen the aircraft supporting tribal communities. When a large tribal shura (Arabic: ‘consultation’) was planned, it was decided to send an Osprey out to collect local leaders. ‘We were able to demonstrate that we were using our best equipment to support the community,’ said Bianca.
Other Ospreys were kept on a 24-hour Quick Reaction Force, ready to respond to any mission. Crews could be airborne and on their way within 10-15 minutes of a call to action. Bianca points out that no missions were lost to unavailability of aircraft. Of 12 aircraft deployed, eight or nine would be ready for operations, with availability at 65-75%.
The Afghan conditions have taken their toll on the machines. The talcum powder-like dust of Afghanistan reacts very differently to the gravel-like sand of Iraq and, as a result, engine air particle separators (EAPS) have been modified to deal with the issue. What effect deployed operations are having on peacetime and training missions is unclear. On the New River ramp were several airframes that had clearly been cannibalised for spares. Bianca said that the spares supply chain was improving.
It seems other USMC aircraft communities are now accepting the Osprey. The accidents that occurred during the type’s early career and evaluation left some with a very dim view of the tiltrotor, and there was much criticism of its purchase, particularly from the crews flying the aircraft the Osprey is taking over from, the Frog.
“Those who criticised the Osprey back then are being pretty quiet at the moment,’ said Capt Danny Cohlmeyer. ‘When we first deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it was a case of selling the aircraft to the marines and getting them to understand the capabilities and benefits. I think we have done that.”
But with the tours in Afghanistan and Iraq under its belt, the Osprey has an increasing number of fans in the USMC. The type has become a figurehead for the high-technology aircraft the Corps is beginning to embrace as it prepares for the service entry of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the CH-53K heavy-lifter, which is expected to achieve an initial operating capacity (IOC) in 2018.
There is certainly no shortage of willing pilots who want to take on the tiltrotor challenge. The latest cadre of V-22 Osprey are no longer the experienced veterans of the Sea Stallion or the beloved Sea Knight, as you might expect, but members of the ‘Playstation generation’ are young enthusiastic trainees straight out of flight school. New recruits who join the ranks of USMC aviators can today find themselves on an operational Osprey unit within three years of joining.
At the beginning of the programme, commanders clawed in crews with experience of both rotary-wing and fixed-wing communities, but now new pilots are being pushed through the training pipeline, so they avoid being ‘tainted’ by any bad habits they might have picked up when flying fixed or rotary-wing.
New pilots going through the system spend the majority of their time on fixed-wing aircraft such as the T-34 Mentor and the twin-engined TC-12 King Air before taking a rotary-wing course on the TH-57 Creek.
“The marines see the Osprey as a fixed-wing aircraft that can land vertically, rather than a helicopter,” explained Capt Adam Richard, a V-22 pilot from USMC tiltrotor unit VMM-263. “More time is spent flying the Osprey as an airplane rather than a helicopter and we spend three times more flight training time on fixed-wing aircraft.”
Currently, all Osprey pilots, whether they hail from the USMC or USAF, train at New River. The base is currently home to three full-motion flight simulators (FFS) and two non-motion flight training devices (FTD), with a third to be added shortly. This is on top of the two CH-53 simulators and single examples for the Huey and the Cobra. Contractor Veraxx Engineering has been able to network all the simulators at New River, allowing crews to practise missions with other crews.
As Ospreys move to the West Coast, new sims will be installed at Miramar, and these will also be interconnected, allowing even larger training packages to be flown by crews located at different bases. It will also enable crews who have deployed to share their experiences with those preparing to take the aircraft into operations. But it’s not just pilots who are able to appreciate synthetic training.
Rear crewmen have been able to familiarise themselves with the Marine Common Aircrew Trainer – Prototype (MCAT-P), set up in the simulation building at New River. The sim, delivered in August 2008, gives pilots a crash course in crew co-ordination, and they can practise key skills such as underslung loading and gunnery.
The MCAT-P is unique in the USMC at the moment, but if funding becomes available, the course could become part of a training syllabus for rear-crew members, allowing them to train in a safe environment before they get on board a real helicopter. This would be an important consideration as the marines continue to take delivery of valuable Ospreys. They plan to reach a total of 360.
A question of self-defence
One of the recent most interesting discussion points in the Osprey community has been whether to retain the aircraft’s self-defence capability.
Back in 2007, and prior to the type’s first operational deployment, the USMC decided the aircraft needed a self-defence capability to supplement the machine gun fitted to the aircraft’s rear ramp. At the time, BAE Systems was developing the Remote Guardian System, a belly-mounted turret fitted with a 7.62mm mini-gun that could fold into the fuselage while on the ground but slide down under the belly of the aircraft during flight.
The weapon is operated from inside the aircraft using a controller. The operator can rotate the gun 360°and acquire targets using a monitor that is fed colour images from a forward-looking infrared sensor. But after using the gun with some success in Afghanistan, recent reports say the marines are ditching the gun system as the drawbacks frequently outweigh its benefits.
At 363kg the gun is heavy, and this limits the payload the aircraft can lift in Afghanistan’s hot and high climate. It can also cause nausea for the crewman operating the system since they must stare at the screen while the aircraft manoeuvres. Marines say they are now looking for a long-term solution. In the meantime, the five-gun systems in theatre will be put into storage.