By Richard Whittle, Al Asad Air Base, Iraq | February 1, 2008
Military | Utility
One December evening, a half-dozen U.S. Marine Corps V-22 pilots gather in their squadron ready room here for a briefing on their mission this night: for the next 12 hr, they will stand ready to fly anywhere in western Iraq to pick up casualties.
"This is going to sound painfully familiar," said Lt. Col. Evan LeBlanc, operations officer for VMM-263, as Marine Medium Tilt-Rotor Sqdn. 263 is abbreviated. But the pain LeBlanc means is the kind that’s welcome in a war zone: boredom.
For two weeks prior to this, VMM-263 had been assigned to keep three of its 10 Bell Helicopter-Boeing Ospreys and six of its 23 pilots ready 24 hr a day to evacuate casualties in the Marines’ area of operations, South Carolina-sized Anbar Province. So far, no calls had come in. Nor would any this night, nor anytime else in December.
All has been quiet on Iraq’s western front since the tilt-rotor transports arrived Oct. 4 for the first operational use in its untidy and often painful history. As a result, while the pilots of VMM-263 have been flying plenty during the first three months of a scheduled seven-month stint in Iraq, most of their missions were "general support," carrying passengers and cargo.
"It’s kind of business as usual," said Lt. Col. Paul Ryan, VMM-263’s executive officer, second in command. "Peace has broken out. There’s not a whole lot of movie-time activity going on."
Even so, squadron members and Marine leaders are pleased with the operational debut of the MV-22B.
By Jan. 4, VMM-263 had accumulated 1,752 mishap-free flying hours in Iraq, carried 7,144 passengers, and delivered 686,047 lb of cargo.
Even with three planes a day sitting on alert for casualty evacuation in December, that was nearly 500 hr, 2,000 passengers, and 50,000 lb more cargo than the squadron of 11 Sikorsky Aircraft CH-53D transport helicopters that VMM-263 relieved had tallied in its first three months in Iraq early last year.
While the bulk of VMM-263’s work in the first three months was what pilots call "hauling ass and trash," in late November and December the squadron got its first assignments to carry combat-loaded Marines on missions to search for insurgents.
"We’ve been taking a very methodical approach — crawl, walk, run — like you would do" with any new aircraft, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth Glueck, commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Cherry Point, N.C., who visited VMM-263 in December. "I don’t think there’s any better way you’re going to be able to test it than having it out here forward-deployed and in a desert environment the way we have."
The Pentagon has spent more than $22 billion over 24 years in developing the Osprey, whose record of four crashes and 30 deaths in testing prior to 2001 led critics to predict disaster if it flew in Iraq. That hasn’t happened, but the critics remain unconvinced.
"We predicted there would be problems," said Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank long critical of the Osprey. "We await its showing up in combat and being used on an hourly basis in combat to test that proposition."
The Marines are buying 360 Ospreys for use as transports at a current price of $69.3 million an aircraft, or $110 million if all development costs are averaged in. The U.S. Air Force plans to buy 50 and maybe more CV-22s for special operations. The "flyaway" price of their version, which includes extra special operations gear, is about $86 million, according to the Naval Air Systems Command.
When the Marines decided to send the Osprey to Al Asad, Anbar Province was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. U.S. forces have continued to take casualties in other parts of Iraq, the Army’s area of operations. But by the time VMM-263 arrived, Sunni Arabs in Anbar had begun helping U.S. and Iraqi forces attack Al Qaeda’s allies, rather than the other way around.
Through the Osprey’s first three months in Iraq, there were no reports of hostile fire directed at the tilt-rotors.
The lack of combat in what remains a combat zone is only one of a couple of surprises that have greeted the pilots and mechanics of VMM-263. One pleasant one is that Iraq’s sand hasn’t been damaging the Osprey’s rotor blades and turbine-engine compressor blades as it has those of U.S. military helicopters.
"The sand’s fine here and it hasn’t been tearing up rotor blades as bad as we thought it would," said Master Sgt. William Eddy, one of VMM-263’s top maintenance chiefs. The squadron had to replace only one of the Osprey’s Rolls-Royce AE1107C engines during its first three months in Iraq, fewer than it replaced in just over a month of training in mid-2007 at Yuma, Ariz. The talcum-powder fineness of Iraq’s sand, compared to the gritty variety found near Yuma, is one apparent reason for that. Two others arise from the way the pilots are flying the Osprey.
In Yuma, said Lt. Col. Paul Rock, the squadron commander, "we went every flight and tried to find crappy places to land to practice landing in crappy places." The squadron hasn’t been doing that in Iraq, of course.
Some missions have required landing directly on the desert floor rather than the aluminum landing mats at forward operating bases. But once they take off vertically, VMM-263’s Ospreys usually fly up and out of the sand quickly. They tilt their rotors forward to airplane mode and gain altitude in a hurry to avoid the risk of hostile fire, then cruise at 8,000 ft or so, well above small-arms range.
"When you’re flying between here and the Jordanian and Syrian borders, you’ll spend a little bit of time in takeoff and landing, but you’ll spend a lot of time up and away," Rock said.
That may also be one reason no Osprey pilot has reported taking hostile fire, he noted.
V-22 program officials and Marine leaders knew the Osprey’s first deployment would be a maintenance challenge, as it is for any aircraft — especially in the Middle East. They tried to ensure enough spare parts were in the logistics chain and sent 16 contractor technicians and maintenance personnel to help VMM-263’s mechanics.
Speaking in early December, CWO2 Carlos Rios, maintenance material control officer, said the squadron’s readiness rate had ranged from 50 to 100 percent on any given day.
The average readiness rate was 76 percent in October and 65 percent in November, which veteran aviators say isn’t bad for an aircraft just introduced into service. The goal for the V-22 once the Marine Corps fleet reaches 60,000 flight hours, roughly twice what the Osprey has logged so far, is an average readiness rate of 82 percent.
The squadron had too few aircraft available to do all its assigned missions only one or two days during the first three months, though there have been unwelcome surprises on the maintenance front as well.
When VMM-263 flew into Iraq from the Gulf of Aqaba off the deck of the USS Wasp, the amphibious assault ship that brought the squadron across the ocean from its home base at New River, N.C., one of its 10 Ospreys posted cockpit warnings of flight control and hydraulic system faults that led the pilots to land in Jordan.
After nearly three days of troubleshooting the problem and changing wire bundles to fix it, that Osprey left Jordan for Iraq but landed at a forward operating base in western Iraq when it had a problem with a swashplate actuator, which had to be replaced.
VMM-263’s readiness rate also was lowered by unexpected problems with slip rings, which distribute electricity to the Osprey’s rotor heads to operate its blade fold mechanism and vibration sensors.
Slip rings usually are replaced at 420 hr. "Some of them have been failing prematurely," Rios said. "That’ll make you take the bird out of the fight," he added, because a slip-ring failure disables vibration sensors that provide warnings if the rotorhead or swashplate actuators are suffering so much vibration they risk damage.
The slip-ring problem put a big dent in the squadron’s readiness rate early on because it took mechanics a couple of weeks to diagnose the malfunction, Rios said. Once they did, they were able to develop a way to troubleshoot it that takes only a couple of hours.
The cause of the slip-ring problem was still unclear as of early December, though some pilots believed it was the result of new flight tactics they’ve adopted in Iraq to avoid potential threats.
Another pleasant surprise has been the performance of the Osprey’s often-troublesome engine air particle separators (EAPS), blowers that filter out sand, dust, and other debris before they reach the engines. In training and other flights in the United States, failures of these separators have been a frequent annoyance. In two cases last year, separator failures were blamed for Osprey engine fires. In Iraq, Rios said, "we’ve had no issues with it."
One of the fires last year was attributed to a hydraulic-line rupture caused by a pressure spike after an EAPS jammed. Bell-Boeing sent a team of technicians to New River before VMM-263 left to modify the EAPS on its MV-22B model Ospreys.
The modification rerouted a drain to prevent spilled hydraulic fluid from flowing from the EAPS into the engine and shortened the amount of time in which the EAPS will shut itself off if it self-detects a failure, Rock said. One annoying by-product is that the EAPS now sometimes shuts itself off when an Osprey takes off quickly into a high hover, causing a rapid pressure change inside the device.
The Osprey’s speed compared to helicopters has quickly made it a favorite way to get around in Iraq for generals and other VIPs.
"Everybody’s loving it because what takes [helicopters] usually an hour and a half takes us about 40 minutes maybe at best," said one non-commissioned officer who flies. "The generals are probably going to be ruined. We’ve spoiled them."
One of the squadron’s goals is to get Marine ground forces and other aviation units used to the Osprey’s speed and familiar with its capabilities so they will find new ways to include the tilt-rotor in their missions.
On Dec. 6, the Osprey was used on its first-ever raid, inserting 24 Marines and 24 Iraqi troops near Lake Tharthar in northern Iraq to search for insurgents. None were found, but Capt. Drew Norris, one of the pilots on the mission, said the flights went smoothly.
There were no more opportunities for the Ospreys to fly raids in Anbar Province the rest of the month because no more were ordered, a Marine spokesman said, a reflection of the relative peace in that part of Iraq.
Later in December, Ospreys also took part in three "Aeroscout" missions — airborne patrols requiring careful choreography. Aeroscout, a tactic the Marines have developed only in recent months, typically involves a group of aircraft that includes Bell AH-1 Cobra gunships, a Bell UH-1 Huey command helicopter, CH-53E Super Stallion transports to carry troops as well as fuel for the smaller helicopters, plus Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters accompanied by a Lockheed Martin KC-130J refueling tanker.
VMM-263’s pilots had to persuade ground commanders the Osprey could add something to that package before they were allowed to try it, and the first attempt was disappointing. One of four generators on one of two Ospreys on the mission failed as the mission began. The ground troops commander called the mission off rather than wait for the pilots to return to Al Asad and get another aircraft.
Ospreys participated in two other Aeroscout missions later that month, however, and pilots said they expected to do more after January, when the squadron was to receive auxiliary fuel bladders. The Tactical Bulk Fuel Dispensing Systems should allow the Osprey to do the mission much the way CH-53Es do, carrying troops and refueling the small helicopters on the ground during such patrols, VMM-263 pilots said.
How much opportunity the squadron will have to test the Osprey in missions beyond its bread-and-butter job of general support before this first deployment ends in the next few months is uncertain. Much will depend on higher-level commanders and the course of the war.
Nor will VMM-263’s seven-month tour resolve the question of how reliable and easy to maintain the tilt-rotor is and whether it’s worth its cost. Things could be tougher for a second Osprey squadron from New River, VMM-162, which is scheduled to replace VMM-263 at Al Asad this year for its own seven-month deployment. The weather will be much hotter, and the war could be, too.
"I would like to think that we will continue to ramp up in the complexity and sophistication of what we’re doing," the squadron commander, Rock, said. "I certainly would not expect that, in the first six- or seven-month deployment of a new weapons system, you would come out saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we know exactly how we’re going to employ it.’"
As one of his former commanders once told him, Rock said, "after the history of this aircraft, you’re just going to sell it back to people one person at a time, through experience."