Crash Course: V-22 Osprey

The V-22 Osprey has been touted as the aircraft of the future. But its troubling track record of crashes should give us all pause. 

Crash Course: V-22 Osprey

Last month, a V-22 Osprey crashed during a routine training exercise in Australia with 23 people onboard. Three U.S. Marines died in the crash, and five others were rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Lamentably, the tragedy sounds all too familiar to those who know of the Osprey’s history. Just last year, five Marines died in an Osprey crash in California, also during a training exercise. Over the years, there have been over a dozen Osprey crashes that have left over 50 people dead. But these crashes are just the beginning of the Osprey’s issues: The aircraft’s new-age design has ushered in a host of unprecedented challenges.

The Osprey’s touted as the aircraft of the future — and not just the military’s future. But given its track record, that could be a bad thing. Where did things go wrong with the Osprey, and how can we make sure the safety of our troops isn’t jeopardized when flying them?

In this edition:

  • A helicopter-plane hybrid
  • Unprecedented design, unprecedented problems
  • Who’s at fault?
  • Looking above and ahead

To better understand the V-22 Osprey’s history, I talked to POGO Center for Defense Information Analyst Julia Gledhill, who recently wrote an analysis on the matter for Responsible Statecraft.

Read Now: Why they call the Osprey the ‘widow maker’

But first, some context. 

Understanding the Osprey’s design is fundamental to understanding the issues that plague the program.

The Osprey is a cross between a helicopter and a plane, combining the former’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities with the latter’s ability to cover long distances and carry more people (up to 24) faster. It does this with the help of rotating blades (rotors) on each of its wings. This type of aircraft is called a tiltrotor, and the Osprey is the first of its kind in the U.S. military’s arsenal.

It’s believed that the need for the Osprey was born out of the failed Operation Eagle Claw. “The Iran hostage crisis revealed that there was a need for high-capacity, long-range aircraft that could still move with the agility of a helicopter,” Julia explained.

Full-scale development of the aircraft began in 1986. The Osprey is now most used by the United States Marine Corps (USMC), who, among other uses, employ the aircraft to transport troops and equipment long distances from sea bases. The agility and maneuverability of the Osprey has become representative of “a whole new way of war,” according to the USMC force design plans.

Long-term problems

But the Osprey’s shown concerning signs from the very start. The craft spent an unusually long time in development. In that period, the cost of the tiltrotor skyrocketed way past what was projected, ballooning by over 200%.

By the very nature of being the first of its kind, the aircraft ran into some previously unencountered problems. The rotors generate so much wind, they kick up dust and debris both into the engines and into the air, obscuring the pilot’s visibility. The rotors often damage carrier bases and tarmacs during takeoffs and landings because of the high temperatures they produce. Problems like these make the Osprey expensive to operate and maintain. They also keep the aircraft from performing: For 10 years straight, the Osprey fleet wasn’t deemed capable of carrying out its designated missions.

These issues may be traced back, frustratingly, to 1999, when the program waived a number of operational tests because the Osprey was unable to meet certain requirements — an unacceptable workaround. “You shouldn’t be able to fudge program requirements when the prototype isn’t up to snuff,” Julia said.

The blame game

Because it is a new design, operating the Osprey has proved to be a learning process for everyone: pilots, maintenance crew, and manufacturers alike. The Osprey has been called challenging and “unforgiving” to fly.

In her new analysis, Julia pointed out the striking fact that many of the documented Osprey crashes occurred during pilot training. In their training, pilots are taught not just how to fly the craft but to be aware of and avoid existing manufacturing issues, like the persistent issue with the Osprey’s gearbox that can cause its clutch to dangerously slip. The crash that occurred in California last year, which claimed five Marines’ lives, occurred because of this very issue. An investigation into the matter found that there was nothing pilots could’ve done to prevent the mechanical failure.

“The military tends to know about design flaws long before they actually fix them," Julia explained. “I think the services would like to say instead, ‘Look, the Osprey is a complicated aircraft, and you have to get in a lot of flight hours to know how to mitigate these issues.’”

She continued, “But it’s more of a reflection of the program itself than the pilots that these issues are resurfacing over the course of decades.”

Protecting the future 

The V-22 Osprey has been touted as the aircraft that can usher not just military aircraft but civilian airliners into the future. It’s the first of its kind, but it is unlikely to be the last.

The Army is currently preparing to launch the V-280 Valor program: A new class of tiltrotor aircraft that will replace the more reliable and iconic fleet of Black Hawk helicopters, which have served a variety of functions in the military for over 40 years.

But with questions about tiltrotors’ effectiveness and safety still up in the air, it’s important as ever that the Osprey’s issues are investigated now, for the sake of our troops’ safety and the future of flight as a whole.