CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan — Almost four years after the MV-22 Osprey arrived in Afghanistan, trailing a reputation as dangerous and hard to maintain, the U.S. Marines Corps finally has had an opportunity to test the controversial hybrid aircraft in real war conditions. The reviews are startlingly positive.
"This is an ugly duckling that turned into a swan," said Richard Whittle, the author of "The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey" and a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, a research center in Washington. "It is still probably more expensive than it should be, and more expensive to operate. But I think many people are still laboring under the impression that it is dangerous to fly, when it now has probably the best safety record of any rotorcraft that the military flies."
The odd aircraft, which takes off and lands like a helicopter but rotates its engines forward to fly like an airplane, had a star-crossed development period that took more than two decades and included huge cost overruns and crashes that claimed 30 lives. Its deployment to Iraq's Anbar province from 2007 to 2009, where as combat waned it was used mainly to transport people and cargo, won it criticism from the Government Accountability Office over maintenance and performance issues.
In Afghanistan, however, the Marines have been able to use it more widely, flying it for everything from freight to hundreds of assaults, where it's carried loads of Marines into or out of landing zones, often under intense fire. It's twice as fast as the helicopter it replaces, the CH-46, it has substantially greater range, and can carry more cargo and more than twice as many troops. The Marines are learning how to maintain it in a harsh environment.
Whittle, once an Osprey skeptic, has become a fan. "The Osprey has proven itself in Afghanistan in a way it didn't in Iraq," he said. "Partly that was because it didn't get the chance in Iraq. Also, it was new, and the military is conservative with new equipment, but once they see it gives them a significant leap in capability like this, they are quick to take advantage of it."
The MV-22 Ospreys here now are dusty, stained and smudged from hot exhaust, and at least five have returned to base with bullet holes, including — twice — the one flown by Lt. Col. Douglas C. Sanders, the commander of the Marine unit that's flying the Osprey in Afghanistan, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264.
The various redundant systems work in the real world, said Maj. Matthew McSorley, a pilot and the operations officer for the squadron, who was hit by a different kind of fire while flying a mission on Valentine's Day: a massive bolt of lightning.
"It was one of those days where the airplane itself just totally wins over your heart," he said. "It bounced right back, and I flew it all the way back, and within a week I was flying the same plane again."
Among the recent missions the squadron has flown was one in which the Osprey showed its strengths: A Marine with a head wound at a distant base needed to be moved to a second distant base for quick treatment.
The crew was alerted, dashed for the Osprey, spooled up the massive engines and zoomed north from Bastion some 40 miles. They picked up the wounded man and flew another 75 miles or so east to the massive coalition base in Kandahar, all in under an hour from the moment they got the call.
A conventional helicopter would have been hard-pressed to do the same, even without the 40-mile run from Bastion, Sanders said.
"With no prior notification, totally configured to do something else and boom, just like that," said Sanders, snapping his fingers. "That's what the Osprey brings to the battlefield."
The Osprey's not officially designated as a medevac aircraft, but speed is everything when someone's dying. That sort of capability is among the many things the Marines have been learning about and getting used to, Whittle said.
A more typical use is taking advantage of the aircraft's speed and range to hook around behind a target for an assault, coming in from an unexpected direction and circumventing the Taliban's crude air-warning system, which often is a line of watchers with cellphones.
That capability has made it a favored platform for special operations strikes here, Marines said.
The current version of the Osprey also is far safer than earlier ones; it's now among the safest rotary-wing aircraft in the military. "This isn't your grandfather's Osprey," Whittle said.
The rate for Class A flight mishaps — those that involve death or permanent disability and/or more than $2 million in damage — is 1.48 per 100,000 hours of flying time since the aircraft was declared operational in 2007, according to Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Richard Ulsh.
That's fractionally worse than the rate for the CH-46 medium-lift helicopter, but Whittle said it compared well, noting that in the last decade, the military has lost about 420 helicopters and more than 600 people in them, while the Osprey has had three fatal crashes since 2001, killing six.
Two of those were blamed on the pilots. The third, a crash last year in Afghanistan of the U.S. Air Force's version of the Osprey, resulted in a dispute between two generals involved in the investigation over whether the cause was an engine problem or pilot error.
Ulsh noted that last month the first of 12 Ospreys joined the fleet of aircraft used for presidential travel, a significant endorsement of the aircraft. They'll be used to transport the president's staff and journalists, though not the commander in chief.
Still, the Osprey is expensive — $122.5 million each, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a persistent critic — and it isn't cheap to maintain, particularly in harsh operating environments such as the extravagantly dusty south of Afghanistan, where the Marines have been fighting.
In a speech in December 2011, McCain, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Osprey engines had been lasting just over 200 hours each, well below the 500 to 600 hours the Marines had expected. That, McCain said, more than doubled the cost per hour of flight, to more than $10,000, compared with about $4,600 for the CH-46. That "is eating up the Marine Corps' budget," McCain said.
Osprey defenders say the aircraft's greater capabilities make up for that additional cost. They note that it can carry 24 passengers, versus 10 for the CH-46, and it flies twice as fast. Plus it can perform missions helicopters can't.
"If you look at maps and the speeds and distances, now we can do three times as much in the same piece of airspace," McSorley said.
The aircraft's maintenance record has clearly improved. For a three-month stretch in 2007 and 2008 in Iraq — also a tough, dusty environment — the Ospreys had a "mission capable rate" of 68.1 percent, according to a GAO report. That's the percentage of time that an aircraft is in good enough repair to perform at least one of its standard missions. At that time in Iraq, about 85 percent of the standard helicopters were mission capable.
For the first three months of this year, however, the Ospreys in Afghanistan had an 86 percent mission-capable rate, according to the Marine Corps.
In Afghanistan, the aircraft hasn't been particularly tricky to maintain, said Master Gunnery Sgt. Brian S. Stenberg, maintenance chief of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 264.
The dust works its way into nooks and crannies, and in particular causes abrasion of the miles of wiring, for example, but after so much time in Afghanistan, the maintenance crews know where it happens and how often.
Squadron commander Sanders, who also flew the Osprey in Iraq, said the improvements in reliability and maintainability since then had been so great he wouldn't have thought them possible.
In Afghanistan, he said, the Osprey has finally claimed its proper place.
"A whole generation has been getting on and off Ospreys now," Sanders said. "In Vietnam, the helicopters of that era — like the 46, the 53 and H1 — they took the Marines in and out of battlefields. Well, in Afghanistan, it's the Osprey."