Welcome FighterSweep Fans to a new series we’re going to call Milestone Monday. To help you get over your case of the Mondays, we’re going to take a look at notable events in aviation history and bring them to you every week.
For our first take, we’re going to have a look at a flying contraption that has generated much controversy over the years. And no, it’s not the JSF/F-35 program this time – shocker, I know. This week marks the anniversary of the first flight of the Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey when, on March 19, 1989, the prototype tiltrotor briefly bested gravity for the first time at Bell’s facility in Arlington, Texas.
Is it a plane? Or is it a helicopter? That question alone could spark endless debate, but nevertheless the versatile, multi-mission machine known as the tiltrotor has found its way into frontline service with the US Marine Corps as well as the US Air Force.
Marketed as the world’s first production tiltrotor aircraft, the Osprey was first developed as a response to the Department of Defense’s need for a Joint-service Vertical take-off/landing Experimental (JVX) aircraft, following the botched Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. The aircraft was unique in that it was designed from the beginning to meet the expectations of the Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Army. Not an easy undertaking, as the developmental process would later prove.
The concept of a tiltrotor meant that the aircraft could take off and land vertically like a helicopter, but transition to and sustain forward flight with the speed and range comparable to a propeller-driven fixed-wing type. NASA had explored tiltrotor technology long before the JVX came along, so with their help the project was given the green light and by 1983, a contract was awarded to a team of Bell Helicopters and the Boeing Company.
By 1985 the JVX project became known as the V-22 Osprey, but trouble besieged the program when a prototype aircraft crashed in June 1991. Several more crashes over the years of testing unfortunately resulted in 30 fatalities. These accidents necessitated the redesign and modification of numerous systems onboard the Osprey, sufficient enough that the updated model became known as the V-22B.
The redesign resulted in delays and ballooning costs for the Osprey program, and combined with the crashes with loss of life along the way, the Osprey became an easy target for cancellation. Yet the Pentagon approved full-rate production for the multi-mission Osprey in 2005, with a planned buy of 458 total airframes.
Most of the Ospreys produced will go to the USMC as MV-22Bs, for replacement of their aging CH-46 medium-lift helicopters. Fifty frames, designated CV-22Bs, are operated by the USAF’s Special Operations Command. The US Navy also recently announced plans to incorporate the Osprey into its fleet, replacing the venerable Northrop Grumman C-2 Greyhound as the service’s carrier-onboard-delivery (COD) aircraft.
The Osprey appears to have proven its worth, and more than fulfilled the role it was designed for. The type has seen combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other locations. The type has also conducted humanitarian operations all over the globe, moving supplies and personnel in Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake.
In recent years during Operation Odyssey Dawn, a pair of Ospreys conducted a rapid-response SAR operation for a F-15E Strike Eagle crew that ejected while conducting a strike mission over Libya. The Osprey sharpened its talons in late 2014, when it successfully launched a variety of offensive, forward-firing side-mounted rockets during testing at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
It’s no secret that the Osprey was troubled as a youth, but the unique tiltrotor has matured into a valuable asset for both the USMC and USAF, and soon the US Navy. Love it or hate it, the one thing you have to concede to the Osprey is it’s uniqueness. Which makes it sound awfully like another modern VSTOL aircraft (F-35B, anyone?) program, doesn’t it?