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Mon, Sep 05, 2022

USAF CV-22 Ospreys Return to Service

One Aircraft in Three Acts

As Lockheed’s Constellation—a curvaceous, mid-century beauty—was to Marilyn Monroe, so Bell Boeing’s V-22 Osprey—a hybridized, temperamental oddity prone to potentially catastrophic malfunction—is to Frankenstein’s monster.

Born of failure—namely, that of 1980’s Operation Eagle Claw, which occasioned the Pentagon’s realization that military roles exist to which neither conventional helicopters nor fixed-wing aircraft are well-suited—the V-22 has passed it’s operational life endeavoring to live down the troubled infancy, protracted adolescence, and lofty price tag for which it’s infamous.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) green-lit the V-22 in 1983; a prototype flew in 1989; flight-testing the Osprey, however, spanned a worrying 18-years and entailed numerous, sweeping design alterations. The fourth and fifth V-22 prototypes crashed in 1991–92 respectively. In 2000, during U.S. Naval sea-trials, the Osprey test-fleet was grounded following two fatal accidents that collectively claimed the lives of 23 Marines.

Once operational, the V-22’s lot didn’t much improve. Massive cost overruns prompted repeated Congressional attempts to kill the Osprey program. During a 2000 address before a House of Representatives subcommittee, noted defense industry analyst Michael E. O’Hanlon asserted: “Its [The V-22's] production costs are considerably greater than for helicopters with equivalent capability—specifically, about twice as great as for the CH-53E, which has a greater payload and an ability to carry heavy equipment the V-22 cannot.”

In 2001, Lieutenant Colonel Odin Lieberman, commander of the V-22 squadron at Marine Corps Air Station New River, was relieved of duty amidst allegations that he’d instructed his unit to falsify maintenance records for purpose of making the Osprey appear more reliable.

Between 2007 and 2010, USMC V-22s demonstrated a dismal fleetwide readiness rate of 53%. By 2012, the Marine Corps’ V-22 readiness rate had risen to a slightly less dismal 68%. Nevertheless, since 2015, V-22s have required more service and posted lower dispatch availability rates (62%) than the conventional helicopters operated by the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.

On 17 August 2022, Lieutenant General Jim Slife of the U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations Command (AFSOC) ordered a fleet-wide safety standdown of AFSOC V-22s in the wake of increasingly frequent instances Hard Clutch Engagement (HCE)—a dangerous and unpredictable phenomenon comprising enormous, often unrecoverable thrust asymmetries attributable to malfunctions of the complex drivetrain by which the V-22’s two Rolls-Royce Liberty AE1107C engines are linked.

On 12 August 2022, a hard clutch engagement forced an AFSOC CV-22 crew to make an emergency landing in a nature preserve on the Norwegian island of Senja. The aircraft—at the time of this writing—remains on the island insomuch as onsite repairs have been deemed impossible by Norwegian authorities staunchly opposed to damaging the terrain into which the 16-ton machine slammed.

On 02 September 2022, Lt. Gen. Slife—the selfsame chap who ordered its grounding—cleared the AFSOC V-22 fleet to resume operations. Osprey flight-crews, however, have been directed to henceforth employ what the Air Force has spuriously dubbed risk-mitigation techniques when flying the tiltrotor beastie.

AFSOC spokeswoman Lt. Col. Becky Heyse states: “Informed by analysis of the data and inputs from the CV-22 aircrew enterprise, Lt. Gen Slife, AFSOC commander, authorized resumption of CV-22 flight operations Sept 2, 2022 with risk control mitigations in place. These mitigation guidelines are focused on flight operations where the preponderance of HCEs were experienced. Until a root cause is identified, and solution implemented, the focus is on mitigating operations in flight regimes where HCEs are more prevalent and ensuring our aircrews are trained as best as possible to handle HCEs when they do occur.”

The techniques espoused by General Slife and trumpeted by Colonel Heyse and speak to the U.S. federal government’s worrying and worsening propensity for putting optics ahead of efficacy. For instance, Osprey pilots have been instructed to not smoothly advance the V-22’s power-levers to full-thrust on takeoff. Rather, they are to bring the power up incrementally. Furthermore, AFSOC has decreed that in planning V-22 missions, any discussions pertaining to the use of “risky” flight maneuvers shall be led only by personnel holding the rank of lieutenant colonel or higher.

That AFSOC’s mitigation guidelines are abjectly placebic and constitute window dressing in the absence of an actual fix for the Osprey’s mechanical woes is self-evident—as is the possibility that CV-22B 10-0053 is destined to wind up a high-tech refuge for Norwegian moose. What remains uncertain is what, exactly, is wrong with the V-22 Osprey.



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