19th March 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the first flight of Bell Boeing’s multi mission military tiltrotor aircraft. Designed to combine the versatility of a conventional helicopter with the long range and high speed performance of a fixed wing turbo prop, Duncan Monk looks at its development, early history, potential customers and future of this remarkable aircraft.
The V-22 started life during the United States Department of Defense (DoD) Joint service Vertical take-off and landing experimental (JVX) program in 1981. With the United States Marine Corps looking for an alternative way of deploying their strike force for a more significant dispersal of assets, and with their CH-46s wearing out, JVX was the only option on the table bar the unthinkable – a merger between the US Marine Crops and the US Army.
The US DoD made a request for proposals in December 1982 for JVX preliminary design work to interested parties which were: Bell Helicopter (BH), Grumman, Lockheed, Aerospatiale, Boeing Vertol (BV) and Westland. The DoD asked for companies to form ‘teams’ with Bell and Boeing teaming up to provide, what turned out to be, the only proposal with an enlarged version of the Bell XV-15A tiltrotor VTOL prototype aircraft. The US Navy and Marine Corps were given the lead in 1983, when Bell Helicopters and Boeing Vertol were awarded a preliminary design contract.
The JVX was designated the V-22 Osprey on the 15th January 1985. By March of that year the first six prototypes were being produced and Boeing Vertol was expanded to deal with the ever increasing workload. Work was split between the two companies, with Bell Helicopters manufacturing and integrating the wing, nacelles, rotors, drive system, tail surfaces, ramp, and Rolls Royce engines whilst Boeing Vertol manufactured and integrated the cockpit, avionics and flight controls.
The Osprey designation for the US Marines was given as MV-22 and the US Air Force the CV-22. This was in reverse of normal procedure to prevent Marine Corps Ospreys from having conflicting designation with Aircraft Carriers (CV). Full production of the aircraft happened in May 1986 when the Bell Boeing partnership was awarded a $1.7 billion contract for V-22 aircraft for the US Navy.
The first V-22 Osprey was rolled out to much media hype in May 1988 and under welcoming blue skies. However, all was not well and later that year the US Army left the program deciding its budget could be spent on more immediate aviation programs. The project faced further opposition in 1989 from the Senate and survived two votes that could have seen the program cancelled. However the DoD did instruct the US Navy not to spend any more money on the project. Defense secretary Dick Cheney also tried to removed further funding for the Osprey between 1989 and 1992 but was overruled by Congress. Further studies of an alternative aircraft found that the V-22 Osprey provided greater capability and combat effectiveness with similar operating costs when compared to alternatives.
The first MV-22 prototype (c/n D0001, s/n 163911) flew on the 19th March 1989 with Boeing’s Dick Balzer and Bell’s Dorman Cannon at the controls. The flight was in helicopter mode only and lasted just over 10 minutes. The first flight in fixed wing mode was made later that year on the 14th September 1989 again by the same aircraft however this time flown by Bell’s Dorman Cannon and Roy Hopkins. The first sea trials were successfully undertaken on the USS Wasp in December 1990 by the third and fourth prototypes. Following this the fourth and fifth prototypes crashed in 1991 and 1992 leading to Bell and Boeing redesigning the V-22 to reduce weight, simplify manufacture and reduce production costs. This resulting aircraft became known as the V-22B and flights resumed in 1993 after further safety improvements were incorporated into the prototypes.
Flight testing of four full-scale development V-22s began in early 1997 when the first pre-production V-22 was delivered to the Naval Air Warfare Test Center, NAS Patuxent River in Maryland. The first of four low rate initial production aircraft, ordered on 28th April 1997, were then delivered on 27th May 1999. The 10th Osprey completed the program’s second sea trials, this time onboard the Tarawa class amphibious assault ship USS Saipan during January 1999. During external load testing in April 1999 Boeing used a V-22 to lift and transport the light-weight M777 Howitzer.
Sadly In 2000, there were two further fatal crashes, killing a total of 19 US Marines, and the aircraft was again grounded whilst an investigation was carried out into the cause and various parts redesigned. It wasn’t until June 2005 that the V-22 completed its final operational evaluation, involving long range deployments, high altitude, desert and shipboard operations which also confirmed problems identified in various accidents had been addressed.
Seven aircraft have crashed with a total of 35 fatalities, three of those crashes have occurred since the V-22 became operational in 2007 resulting in six fatalities.
The MV-22B is powered by 2 x Rolls Royce Allison T406/AE 1107C Liberty Turboshaft engines each producing 6,150HP and can fly at height of 25,000′ with a cruising speed of 241 knots. It carries a crew of 4 (pilot, co-pilot and 2 flight engineers/crew chiefs) and has the capacity to carry 24 troops seated or 32 on the floor. Internal cargo capable of being carried is 20,000lbs or 15,000lbs can be carried externally on a dual hook.
The Osprey is 57′ long and with the nacelles in the vertical position, 22′ high. The wingspan of the aircraft is just over 45′ but when you add the enormous rotors measuring 38′ each, the width increases to 84′. The range of the Osprey is just over 1000 miles and has a combat radius of 426 miles. If you add in two internal fuel tanks it has a ferry range of over 2230 miles.
The MV-22 can be fitted with a number of armaments including either a single 7.62mm calibre M240 machine gun or a 0.50mm calibre M2 Browning machine gun fitted to the rear ramp.
However, it is the latest weapon that is most impressive, the Interim Defence Weapon System (IDWS) developed by BAe. The IDWS is a 7.62mm calibre GAU-17 minigun mounted in the belly of the aircraft through the aircraft’s rear cargo hole. Unlike the ramp-mounted alternatives, the IDWS can rotate 360 degrees and fire at 3,000 rounds per minute, laying down a suppressing fire effective against personnel and lightly-armored targets up to 1,500 meters away. The co-pilot controls the system remotely from the cockpit via a color monitor and joystick.
The IDWS also employs forward-looking infrared with 28x zoom to detect potential threats before getting in range. A computerised fire control mechanism prevents it from shooting into the V-22’s landing gear or 38-foot diameter rotors, so as not to limit the aircraft’s in-flight maneuverability. Mechanics need roughly five to eight hours to install this million-dollar weapon pod prior to missions however the system weighs in at a hefty 800lbs which significantly reduces the amount of troops and cargo the Osprey can carry.
Despite being aimed at the United States four armed forces – Marines, Navy, Air Force and Army – the only two operators of the V-22B at present are the US Marines flying the MV-22B and the US Air Force with the CV-22B.
The US Marines have 16 squadrons operating the MV-22B; five at MCAS Miramar, eight at MCAS New River, two at MCAS Futenma in Japan and one at Edwards AFB.
The US Air Force has four Squadrons, 8th SOS at Hurlbert Field, 20th SOS at Cannon AFB, 71st SOS at Kirtland AFB and the 352nd SOG based at RAF Mildenhall, UK.
The current plan is to build 458 Ospreys in total, with the US Marines receiving 360, the US Air Force 50 and the US Navy 48 – rumored to be designated HV-22B. Although the latter is still in the evaluation stage and is being considered to replace the venerable yet trusty C-2 Greyhound in the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) role, it looks doubtful this variant will ever appear. The US Army may reverse its decision to not buy the Osprey as it looks to replace some of its aging Blackhawks.
The UK has been lucky in that the 352nd Special Operations Group (SOG), based at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, have started to receive CV-22B’s. Expected to receive ten in total, the first deliveries to the 7th SOS commenced in June 2013 when 11-0057 and 11-0058 arrived in Suffolk (352nd SOG welcome the CV-22B and MC-130J). Since then a further three airframes have arrived; 09-0046, 11-0059 and 11-0060. They are very active at RAF Mildenhall and fly most week days from late afternoon until late evening, much as the Shadows and Talons did.
Foreign sales have been slow in coming, although it now looks like overseas sales may be on the cards for Bell Boeing with the following being noted in the last few months: Israel has long been muted as being interested in buying MV-22B’s and on the 14th January 2014 the US DoD notified Congress that Israel has requested a potential sale of six airframes. That order could double, as at the recent Heli-Expo at Anaheim, CA, the Bell Helicopters CEO John Garrison said that ‘Israel has notified for six to twelve aircraft’. Delivery is expected to start from 2015, if Congress approves the sale.
The Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) is another potential customer that has come to light recently with its announcement of a five-year defence buildup plan. The JSDF are looking at potentially purchasing 17 Ospreys to bolster its defence at a time where China is flexing its muscles in the South China sea.
The UAE and Canada have also been mooted as potential customers, although nothing is as yet forthcoming from either of these countries.
Other variants that have been rumored and proposed over the years include:
EV-22 – a proposed Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW) aircraft. The Royal Navy is believed to have studied this variant as a replacement for its current fleet of aging Sea King ASaC.7 Helicopters.
HV-22 – Proposed US Navy variant in various roles; Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), COD and retrieving/delivering special warfare teams. Currently the MH-60S fills these roles bar COD, which is undertaken by the C-2 Greyhound.
SV-22 – Proposed Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) variant looked at by the US Navy to replace the S-3 and SH-2 in the Eighties.
25 years on, and the remarkable V-22 Osprey still looks magnificent and has become a proven warhorse. The speed and vertical performance of this tiltrotor craft make it a unique tool in the US Marine and Air Force armoury. It is combat proven with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Sudan in recent years. With orders appearing from foreign customers the future of the Bell Boeing V-22 looks secure and will remain in service for many years to come.