Despite two crashes that killed 23 Marines in 2000 and nagging technical problems, top Marines officials continue to give the MV-22 Osprey aircraft high marks. But many of the Marines rank-and-file who have flown in the MV-22 seem to disagree: Data compiled in a closely-held survey that elicited nearly 50,000 responses was highly critical of some facets of the aircraft's suitability to its intended mission.
The 2000 survey of pilots, air crews, and other Marines who have participated in flight testing suggests there are numerous nettlesome safety and other "human factors" concerns with the aircraft that takes off like a helicopter then transitions its rotors forward to fly like an airplane. The $48 billion V-22 program has been in development for more than two decades and survived three fatal crashes and a records-doctoring scandal. (click here to view OT-IIE testing "S-9" database, obtained by the V-22 Red Ribbon Panel, a group of retired and active engineers and pilots)
Sources tell POGO that problems with downwash, visibility, and emergency egress still are as problematic today as they were when the survey was conducted.
"The rush to test and deploy the V-22 Osprey has clouded the judgment of the Marines top brass," said POGO Senior Defense Investigator Eric Miller. "They have shown little regard for the Marines who will have to risk their lives flying and riding in an aircraft wrought with design, safety, and comfort flaws."
Although program and contractor officials have boasted widely of the yet-to-be-realized promise of the new technology, they have said little about the aircraft's ability to comfortably, and safely, accommodate the occupants and troops traveling inside the cabin. A sampling of survey responses noted the following common concerns:
- The V-22's propellers create a "brown-out" condition, stirring up a blinding swirl of sand and dust when landing in the desert. This "downwash" interferes with needed operations below or close-by the aircraft during troop embarkations, while hooking-up external equipment loads, and during fast-roping operations when the aircraft hovers near the ground and soldiers slide down ropes. "Landing in the desert can be detrimental to your health," one respondent said. Another Marine commented: "Attempted several different approach profiles searching for a technique that would allow safe night landings in desert environment. Nothing worked!"
- Because the V-22's large propeller nacelles create a blind spot in the rear of the aircraft for the pilot, the crew chief must visually verify that all is clear on the ground or ship deck before the aircraft lands. However, a common complaint of crew chiefs was that small windows and the seating arrangement of troops did not allow them to clearly see the landing area, putting the aircraft at risk for hitting obstacles on or near the ground. "Visibility - totally unsatisfactory," one Marine wrote. "Cannot clear the aircraft into the Landing Zone from the left window. Too small and the troop seat interferes," wrote another. Yet another Marine said: "Field of view stinks for the aircraft in the back."
The survey also noted concerns over the V-22's inadequate cabin heating and cooling system and very cramped conditions. Occupants noted that during the summer testing they got so hot that some even got sick.
"This sounds like whining I know, but these things are all factors in the mission success and failure," one Marine wrote. "When you're on your back, throwing up, sweating so hard that it's burning your eyes on top of the fact that you can't see out of the aircraft anyway makes things not work well."
These and other "human factors" concerns led the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation to declare the MV-22 "not operationally suitable" in his November 2000 report - eight months after a V-22 accident that killed 19 Marines and one month prior to another accident that would take the lives of four more Marines.* The head of DOT&E at the time, Phil Coyle, said additional testing was needed to verify correction of numerous deficiencies discovered in testing.
*This post has been corrected. The original casualty numbers for the December 2000 V-22 crash were incorrect.