Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 41 seconds.
After many years in development, a couple of cancellation attempts and some difficult times, the Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey assault tiltrotor has now earned its place in U.S. Marine Corps Aviation with more than a decade of revolutionary service, and undoubtedly more to come.
The Boeing Vertol CH-46E Sea Knight (Phrog) helicopter that the Osprey replaced could move 15 troops within a 90-mile radius. By comparison, the MV-22B can move 24 troops over a 400-mile radius at more than twice the speed of a helicopter. With the MV-22B, a Marine commander can now place troops wherever they’re needed — not just on a beachhead, but many miles inland as well.
However, it’s not just in assault transport that the MV-22B has proved its worth. Although the Marines’ Sikorsky CH-53E Super Stallion is a more efficient heavy lifter, the MV-22B is capable of moving loads of more than 10,000 pounds (4,535 kilograms) over short distances, making it a versatile asset for Marine commanders.
The MV-22B made its first deployment to a combat zone with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 263 in 2007. Since then, it has been used for such diverse missions as retrieving a downed F-15 fighter crew in Libya, responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and assisting with last year’s hurricane relief efforts in the Caribbean. It has proven to be the Marines’ jack of all trades.
Recently, Vertical 911 was able to spend time with the “Knightriders” of VMM-164, which is based at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, California. This former Sea Knight training (HMMT) squadron operated the CH-46 for 50 years before transitioning to the MV-22B in April 2015.
With the Osprey now having logged more than 400,000 flight hours in fleet service, VMM-164 was able to tell us more about how the Marines’ operations and training have evolved to take advantage of the tiltrotor’s unique capabilities.
The Marines consider the MV-22B to be a high-performance aircraft, and with its large prop rotors, instant throttle response, and a climb rate of over 4,000 feet per minute, it most certainly is. With a relatively lightweight composite build, and two powerful 6,200-horsepower Rolls Royce-Allison AE1107C turboshaft engines, it has more than enough power in airplane mode, which is the regime in which it spends most of its flight time. It also has good hover performance in helicopter/conversion mode, and positively leaps off the ground even at heavier weights at sea level on a warm day.
Ask any Osprey pilot, and they will tell you the MV-22B is not a helicopter but a turbo-prop that hovers. Converted into airplane mode, the aircraft climbs strongly and gets to cruise speed very quickly. The MV-22B can go from a hover to a normal cruise speed of 240 knots in seconds, continuing to a never-exceed speed of 280 knots. In conversion and helicopter modes, the MV-22B maintains speeds from 120 knots all the way down to zero, and can hover all day if necessary.
The Osprey design features sophisticated fly-by-wire flight controls and a glass cockpit, with four multi-function liquid crystal display (LCD) screens. These displays show system status, digital maps, imagery from the nose-mounted forward-looking AN/AAQ-27A electro-optic/infrared camera turret (FLIR), and navigation information (including TACAN, VOR, ILS, GPS, and INS). The flight director panel of the cockpit management system (CMS) allows for fully coupled autopilot approaches that can take the aircraft from forward flight into a 50-foot hover with no pilot interaction.
Critical systems on the aircraft, such as the hydraulic system, have triple redundancy, increasing safety and combat reliability.
The MV-22B’s engines, transmissions, and prop-rotors are mounted inside each wingtip nacelle; an interconnecting drive shaft between the nacelles maintains power to both prop rotors if one engine fails. Because the Osprey was designed for shipboard use, its wing and nacelles rotate to fit lengthwise, and the prop rotors fold, too.
The MV-22B has progressed significantly over the years from the early Block A airframes, which served as training aircraft. MV-22B Block B aircraft were the first deployable Ospreys and provided improvements in maintainability. MV-22B Block C aircraft received additional improvements including weather radar, a forward-firing ALE-47 airborne countermeasures dispenser system, and a more effective environmental conditioning system. Over the years, these features have greatly increased the aircraft’s capabilities.
Today, a typical MV-22B weighs in at around 36,000 lb. (16,330 kg) before fuel. A typical fuel load is around 11,000 lb. (4,990 kg, or 1,650 gallons) and the maximum vertical takeoff weight is 52,600 lb. (23,860 kg). For short field takeoffs, that weight increases to 57,000 lb. (25,855 kg), and the aircraft can take off from a runway at weights up to 60,500 lb. (27,440 kg).
A VMM-164 pilot told Vertical 911, “The MV-22 is built like a tank; the dynamic systems are extremely stout and over-built. As a flying machine the tiltrotor concept is well sorted out.”
A growing mission set
Since its 2007 introduction into fleet service, the MV-22B’s mission set has grown. As the aircraft has become better understood, Marine commanders have been able to use its unique speed, range, and hover capabilities in different ways than they used the CH-46E helicopter it replaced.
Today’s missions include medium-lift combat assault; expeditionary assault from land or sea; delivery of equipment both internally and as external loads; parachute drops of equipment and personnel; ground refueling support for ground vehicles and helicopters; and insertion, extraction and fast roping of reconnaissance teams or special operations forces (SOF). A more mundane mission is transporting VIPs, officers and personnel to land bases and ships offshore. MV-22Bs are also cleared to carry two different types of vehicles internally: the ITV “Growler,” a weapons-capable light-strike platform; and the Polaris MRZR-D light vehicle.
Another important mission set includes medical evacuations from the battlefield, and high-speed transfers of the wounded between hospitals or to an offshore hospital ship. The speed of the MV-22 greatly increases patients’ chances of survival by transporting them to more capable facilities within the so-called “golden hour” following traumatic injury.
The MV-22B is also used for tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel. Better known as TRAP, this is a more constrained version of the Air Force’s combat search-and-rescue mission; rather than searching for downed aircrews, the Marines only launch if they have positive information on the survivors’ location.
One problem the MV-22B has for these missions is that no other model of aircraft is fully capable of escorting it. The McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II fighter jet is one candidate, but lacks the Osprey’s endurance. Helicopters such as the Bell AH-1Z and UH-1Y don’t have the speed to escort the MV-22B, so they need to launch early in order to be on scene for the Osprey’s landings. Over the last few years, the V-22 has been tested with forward-firing rockets that would give it a self-protection/escort option, but this adds considerable weight to the aircraft. The optimal escort solution is still being studied.
Because the Marines specialize in amphibious warfare, many of the MV-22B’s missions are conducted from U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships including the USS Wasp (LHD-1) and the USS America (LHA-6). Both ships have an 850-foot flight deck for aviation operations.
When a VMM squadron deploys as the aviation component of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), it will attach to a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group. The VMM squadron will then be reinforced with four CH-53E Super Sea Stallions from a Heavy Helicopter squadron (HMH); four UH-1Y Venoms and four AZ-1Z Vipers from a Helicopter Light Attack Squadron (HMLA); and six AV-8B Harriers or F-35B Lightning IIs from a Marine Attack, Vertical (VMA) squadron. The resulting reinforced composite squadron is then designated VMM (REIN).
A standard MV-22B flight crew includes two pilots, one of whom is the tiltrotor aircraft commander (TAC) and fully qualified in the aircraft. The aircraft is also flown with a co-pilot, who could be fully qualified or still training to higher levels on the aircraft.
The cabin crew includes a crew chief and an airborne observer/gunner (AO), both of whom are essential to the safe operation of the aircraft. The crew chief is trained on various aircraft systems and helps the pilots during prefight inspections. Before flight, the crew chief is responsible for the rear of the cabin, and controls all movements of embarked passengers and cargo and their placement and unloading.
Once airborne, both the crew chief and AO continuously monitor and inspect the aircraft systems and report any discrepancies to the cockpit. During all landings, particularly reduced-visibility landings, both the crew chief and AO maintain situational awareness of the landing zone and surrounding areas by checking for obstructions under the belly or near the nacelles.
During combat operations, the AO is the designated gunner and can utilize either a rear- ramp-mounted 7.62 M240 machine gun, or the harder-hitting GAU16 or 21 .50-caliber M2 heavy machine gun. The chosen gun can be fired rearward and to the left or the right once the ramp is lowered, and is used during assaults to suppress ground fire. “Our enlisted flight crew members are critical to the safe operation of our aircraft and all take the job seriously,” VMM-164 Sergeant Major Mario A. Aguero told Vertical 911. “I’m proud of how they accomplish these jobs on a daily basis.”
When operating out of their home base at Camp Pendleton, the crews of VMM-164 train virtually every day in order to maintain their proficiency and bring new pilots up to standards. Daily training events take place within Camp Pendleton itself, but also range into the desert of the Imperial Valley and as far east as Yuma, Arizona. The squadron also regularly heads north to Marine Corps Training Center Twentynine Palms, and to the San Bernardino Mountains for local high-altitude training during both the summer and winter months.
With a longer flight, the squadron can reach the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) near Bridgeport, California. In addition to a hangar, sleeping facilities, and a food mess, this base provides crews with a large variety of training opportunities, including multiple confined area landing sites and realistic high-altitude performance training.
Reduced visibility landings
Some of the most challenging training for MV-22B crews involves reduced visibility landings (RVLs). The aircraft produces large dust clouds when landing in desert conditions, often reducing visibility to zero. Captain Townsend, an RVL instructor with VMM-164, explained that crews take a stepped approach to RVL training, proceeding from Level 1 landings — in which there is light obscuration but visibility is maintained with the ground — all the way to Level 5 landings, in which obscuration is so heavy that visibility with the ground is lost by all crew members.
A MV-22B pilot’s first experience with RVLs takes place in the simulator and is surprisingly realistic. The pilot then moves into the actual aircraft for flights encompassing Level 1 through Level 3 RVLs. Once proficiency is attained, another training flight for more challenging Level 4 and 5 RVLs takes place.
“The MV-22B has levels of automation that can be leveraged to achieve a safe landing,” Townsend explained. “In the cockpit, we have a hover page on the screens that we bring up during landings; this allows us to center a ‘pipper’ on the screen which overlays a vector of our groundspeed over our waypoints.
“The pilot on the controls will call out when he is established on the hover page, and he will no longer look outside for the duration of the approach. The pilot not flying will monitor the instruments, back up the flying pilot on his scan, and use the hover page as well as any available ground reference to maintain the crews’ situational awareness. The pilot not flying will also activate and monitor any automation being used for the conduct of the approach.”
Meanwhile, Townsend noted, “The crew chief and AO are in the back scanning and talking us down. When under NVGs [night vision goggles] at night, RVLs become even more difficult and crew coordination needs to be even more precise.”
Once a pilot masters RVLs, continuous training is imperative, Townsend emphasized. “We have found RVLs are a highly perishable skill.”
Because the MV-22B is capable of aerial refueling, it has the ability to range much farther from an ARG/MEU ship or fixed base. Today, launching a shipborne mission with KC-130 tanker support and flying a 1,200-mile one-way flight with air refueling, then returning to the ship with additional refueling evolutions in a single night, is entirely within the realm of possibility.
VMM-164 pilot Captain Ljunggren explained some of the nuances of aerial refueling with the MV-22B. “Each tanker platform the MV-22B is certified to refuel from (KC-130, KC-10, KC-707) has their own unique aerodynamic characteristics,” he said. “We tank off the Marines KC-130s the most, as the C-130 is a little more compatible with our ideal refueling airspeeds and altitudes.
“The MV-22 airframe has a number of characteristics that make conducting air-to-air refueling a unique event,” Ljunggren continued. “Due to the design of the wing and engine/prop rotor location, the aircraft will
fly with a three- to five-degree nose-up attitude depending on the particular refueling airspeed. This sometimes will pose an issue for pilots as they try to reconcile the slight nose-up attitude while trying to contact the basket.
“This issue is minimized by the location of the refueling probe almost directly in line with the right seat pilot and allows for a very natural sight picture for lining up the probe with the drogue. The probe location is helpful at night, when the pilots are using NVGs which have a restrictive field of view. The MV-22B has a light for its probe for use at night, which casts a shadow of the probe onto the basket for assisting with line-up.”
Maintaining the beast
There is no doubt the MV-22B is a complicated aircraft. As it has accumulated more flight hours and a broader set of missions over the years, its maintenance program has evolved to keep pace. The growing maintenance history on the aircraft has led to more refined inspection requirements, and also yielded service life extensions for some parts.
Master Sergeant Jamie Jenkins is the maintenance control chief at VMM-164 and explained, “flight times and maintenance records for each aircraft are tracked electronically, giving the maintenance depot center a clear understanding of which parts wear more often and what parts are holding up and wearing better than we thought.” He continued, “The MV-22B is building hours quickly and is now getting to the point of being considered a mature aircraft. We aren’t seeing many surprises, and are now able to predict things in advance. The aircraft has routine software updates, and with each update the aircraft’s electronics get more refined.”
During routine flight line operations, aircraft undergo a daily inspection that is valid for 72 hours. Additionally, a less intrusive “turnaround inspection” is performed after every flight. Other inspections are performed at 35, 70, and 140 flight hours, with major “phase” inspections after every 280 hours.
There are four major inspection cycles: A, B, C, and D. At each letter cycle, different areas of the aircraft are inspected, and any necessary repairs are completed. These inspections repeats themselves until the aircraft goes in for a major overhaul and re-paint.
Every unit has a shop called “maintenance control,” whose senior planners are responsible for ensuring that the unit can meet all of its training and mission requirements without over-flying any required inspection. Jenkins described maintenance on the MV-22B as intensive. He noted, however, that maintenance tasks have gradually become easier and more end-user-friendly since he started working on the MV-22B program in 1999.
“The nacelle redesign that was completed some years ago has been a game-changer in terms of speeding up maintenance actions. The maintainers have more direct access to components,” he said.
Today, there are around 70 minor variations of the Osprey in service, which make maintaining them all a logistical challenge. Over the next five years, that number will be reduced through the V-22 Common Configuration-Readiness and Modernization (CC-RAM) program, in which Bell-Boeing will update older Block B standard MV-22 Osprey aircraft to the newer Block C standard. After the CC-RAM program is completed, there should only be around five configurations, streamlining support requirements.
Looking to the future
As the Marine Corps plans to operate the MV-22B for decades to come, the service will continuing to make improvements to the aircraft.
The Marines have revealed plans to test weapons using fuselage-mounted hard points, with the aim of giving the MV-22B new stand-off and precision weapons capabilities. These offensive capabilities include adaptation of the AGM-114 Hellfire, GBU-53/B SDB II, and the joint air-ground missile. The MV-22B has already successfully tested the Hydra 70 rockets, guided APKWS Rockets and AGM-176 Griffin missiles during Bell flight tests in 2014.
Another weapon system developed for the MV-22B is a belly-mounted, remotely operated gun turret system — named the Interim Defense Weapon System (IDWS) — which was installed on half of the first MV-22Bs that deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. However, the Marines found that the system’s 800-lb. (360-kg) weight took away from critical payload in hot-and-high conditions, and consequently removed the system, although it remains in their inventory.
Meanwhile, a removable internal tanker system has been developed for the V-22, called the V-22 Aerial Refueling System, or VARS. This system has the ability to carry up to 10,000 lb. (4,535 kg) of fuel. Because of the V-22’s uniquely flexible flight characteristics, it has the ability to refuel both helicopters — including CH-53E/Ks, the Air Force’s Sikorsky MH-60G Pave Hawks, and Army Special Operations MH-47 Chinooks and MH-60 Black Hawks — as well as jets including the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, McDonnell Douglas F/A-18, and AV-8B Harrier. This capability will give the Marines additional flexibility worldwide.
Looking forward to the late 2020s, an MV-22C model could conceivably incorporate design features of the V-280 Valor tiltrotor now under development by Bell. Tiltrotor technology has advanced dramatically since the V-22 was first designed, and the next iteration of the V-22 could incorporate advances in engines and prop rotors, as well as avionics that move more information from the battle space into the cockpit, increasing crews’ situational awareness.
When asked to share his thoughts about where the MV-22B Osprey community stands in 2018, Lieutenant Colonel John Widener, Commanding Officer of VMM-164, said, “As a transition pilot from the AV-8B Harrier community, I have been beyond impressed by the capabilities of the Osprey. Its unique capabilities has brought the United States Marine Corps to a place that could only be dreamed of 15 years ago. The MV-22B is the Marine Corps’ first tiltrotor aircraft. Its speed and its unique capabilities allows us to bring the fight to the enemy and mass combat power faster than ever before.
“Of course, none of this would be possible without the well trained and motivated Marines from the maintenance and flying sides who keep the MV-22B in the fight,” he added. “As the Knightriders’ Commanding Officer, these young men and women who work on these aircraft are inspiring to watch. I am very interested to see what the evolution of tiltrotor aircraft holds in the future.”