By Richard Whittle
Two months before Marine Col. Gregory L. Masiello took over the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command’s V-22 Osprey program on Aug. 20, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the Marine Corps’ prized tiltrotor transport. After a painful quarter-century of development, the Marines got the Osprey into service in 2007, flying a dozen in Iraq for 18 months, and the Pentagon announced Oct. 20 that a squadron of V-22s will deploy to Afghanistan in November. But as the House hearing ended, the panel’s chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) declared: “What we have heard today convinces me that the dream of a viable, high-speed, long-range, tiltrotor aircraft has not been realized.”
That isn’t what Masiello heard from the Marine and Air Force special operations crews who fly the Osprey after he took over PMA 275, as Navair calls the V-22 program.
“I went out and I talked to the users,” Masiello told Rotor & Wing. “I talked to the fleet commanders. I talked to all of the three (commanders) that took their squadrons through Iraq. I’ve talked to some of the Air Force users and operators. I’ve talked to some of the Marines on the flightline, not just the commanders, and what I get back—and it’s very refreshing—is extreme enthusiasm.”
The House hearing included testimony questioning the Osprey’s reliability, price and operating cost. The deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation, Lt. Gen. George Trautman, told the panel those things need improving but said the V-22’s speed and range have “transformed the way we are fighting.”
Towns ended the hearing by declaring that, “it’s time to put the Osprey out of its misery.” No one in Congress with any power over the defense budget seems to agree. This year’s defense bills contain all $2.7 billion the Pentagon requested to buy 30 more MV-22B Ospreys for the Marine Corps and five CV-22Bs for the Air Force in fiscal year 2010. Those aircraft are being bought under a five-year, $10.4-billion contract for 167 Ospreys awarded in 2008 to Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing Rotorcraft Systems, who make the V-22 in a 50-50 partnership. That’s one reason Masiello can say that, even with rising pressure to cut the defense budget, “Overall, the health of the program is outstanding.” Masiello was once the deputy program manager for the VH-71, the presidential helicopter Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled this year, so he knows nothing is certain in defense procurement. The former UH-1N Huey pilot recognizes that Navair, Bell-Boeing and the services that fly the Osprey have to improve its “ilities”—reliability, maintainability, supportability, availability, affordability—to keep the program healthy.
“I’m trying to attack all of those,” he said. This past summer, PMA 275 formed a “readiness committee” and is reviewing the cost, quality, life cycles and other attributes of 1,800 Osprey parts to find problems and fix them. Solving parts, logistics and engineering difficulties that have kept the V-22 from reaching its 82 percent readiness target in the Marine Corps fleet—the average mission capable rate in Iraq was 62 percent—is one of Masiello’s top priorities.
He also wants to get the Osprey’s price down. The current “fly- away” cost is $64 million for the MV-22B the Marines fly and $76 million for the Air Force’s CV-22B. The program acquisition cost, calculated by dividing the 458 Ospreys planned into the total estimated cost of the program, which includes research and development, testing and military construction, is $118 million per aircraft.
What does Masiello think a V-22 should cost? “Less,” he said. “I’m not going to throw out a target cost.” Anyway, he said, it’s “myopic” to look at production cost alone. “A bigger thing that I think we need to look at is the total ownership cost, the cost to operate it.” Reducing the V-22’s operating cost, Masiello reasons, could get production costs down by encouraging new customers to buy Ospreys.
Wishful thinking? Not at all, Masiello says. Bell-Boeing reports that the Army has shown interest in the Osprey as a medical evacuation aircraft since June 25, when a V-22 squadron deployed aboard the USS Bataan amphibious assault ship got an injured sailor to treatment ashore by flying him 147 nautical miles in 37 minutes.
“That doesn’t go unnoticed by people,” Masiello said. The Navy, which has long been scheduled to buy 48 Ospreys but never has, recently confirmed that the V-22 is among the aircraft being considered as a replacement for the C-2 Greyhound, used to carry supplies and people to aircraft carriers. The Osprey, in other words, seems to be gaining acceptance, which is why its new program manager doesn’t get worked up when critics say his project should be killed. “I suspect that those critics or ones like them will be around until this program’s complete,” he said.