Osprey hopes spring eternal

The V-22's program manager sees big new opportunities for his controversial bird.

FARNBOROUGH, England – The MV-22 Osprey is just getting started.

That was the optimistic line Monday from the big bird’s program manager, Marine Col. Greg Masiello, who told reporters at the air show here that it might not be long before the Osprey could take many more missions in more militaries.

Program officials are in talks with several potential foreign customers, though they won’t name names, and Masiello said he was “very positive” about a possible new domestic one – the U.S. Navy. It has always been a part of the wider program of record, he said, but it has just never funded its standing requirement for 48 aircraft. After a few recent flights at sea, the admirals may change their mind, officials hope.

An Osprey made its first carrier onboard delivery flight earlier this month to the USS Abraham Lincoln out on deployment in Central Command, Masiello said. And last month, it conducted a first-of-its kind simulated medical evacuation from the ballistic missile submarine USS Wyoming in the Atlantic. These and other exploits have gotten the Navy’s attention – or so program officials hope.

The thing is, they’ve been singing this tune for years. In the case of foreign military sales, we heard Masiello sing it at the Paris Air Show, where he also said many foreign powers were lining up, checkbooks open, to buy Ospreys. And in the case of the Navy, both it and the Army both were involved with the program years ago, but in a saga this old, and with such a circuitous history, who wasn’t planning to buy them at a certain point?

What’s different now, Masiello said, is that the Osprey is proving and re-proving itself every day. The Marines’ fleet is approaching 150,000 total flight hours, he said, and the Osprey’s demonstrated range, speed and utility aren’t PowerPoint bullets anymore – they’re a daily reality downrange.

But there’s no denying the Osprey remains a controversial aircraft. Two of them have crashed this year, and despite officials’ attempts to exonerate the aircraft involved (i.e., blame their pilots) many people still view the V-22 as dangerous. As you’ve read here, DoD is working overtime to mollify the leaders of Okinawa, who are afraid of the aircraft that will start flying off their island this fall.

Moreover, at about $66 million per copy, the V-22 is expensive compared to a traditional helicopter, and it has developed a reputation as a hangar queen – nickname: “the princess.” On Monday, Masiello anticipated reporters’ skepticism, saying the aircraft have good readiness rates and regularly take all assignments.

“I get questions like, ‘Are we babying this aircraft?’ Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m sure there are always going to be skeptics that exist, but it’s unfounded, in my opinion.”

People are going to think what they think, Masiello concluded, but his bottom line is that decision-makers get the facts about the Osprey and they like what they see. That could be why he’s so bullish on the Navy joining the club – because everyone in the fleet would benefit from an SV-22.

A naval Osprey can take as much or more cargo as the existing C-2 Greyhound carrier supply aircraft, Masiello said, and it can deliver it directly to every ship in the strike group. So instead of a COD trapping aboard the carrier and unloading cargo that has to be ferried by helicopter to the other ships in the group, an Osprey could take it directly to them.

“Some of the people that are the fondest of the V-22 are the supply officers on these ships,” Masiello said.

Also fond could be the sailors aboard ballistic missile subs. Masiello described a test last month in which an CV-22 flew from Cannon AFB, N.M. all the way out to the Wyoming at sea, and hovered over the ship to simulate pulling up an injured sailor.

Strategic Command asked to see if the Osprey could become a rescuer of last resort for the boomers after a sailor injured in a real accident died at sea. At the time there was no aircraft that could fly to meet his ship and also practically recover him. So even if the Navy does not actually buy its own Ospreys, the Marines and Air Force could find themselves on call in a pinch in support of the boomers’ “national mission.”

The Osprey that flew out to meet the Wyoming flew 2,600 nautical miles, Masiello said, with three in-flight refuelings and a total of 11.5 hours in the air. And just like in the big Air Force’s intercontinental missions, an Osprey can swap its crews, meaning that when it gets to its objective and has to go into its critical hover-and-perform routine, the pilot at the controls is relatively fresh.

Will all this be enough to actually hook the Navy or foreign customers we’re told are just around the corner? Masiello set down a marker: If everything goes well, we could see a FMS contract for Ospreys in 2013, he said. So when program officials brief at next year’s Paris Air Show, that may be the truest test of their hopes for expansion.