The Dream Machine

The untold history of the notorious V-22 Osprey.

V22 Osprey
A V-22 flies over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. (Cover photo from “The Dream Machine.”)

Mother Nature’s osprey is an aquatic bird of prey. It hovers over water, dives to catch fish, then takes off vertically and zips to shore, where it pauses to devour its catch. The United States military’s Osprey is also capable of hovering, diving, taking off vertically, and flying fast. But with a “flyaway cost” of $64 million (Marine Corps version) and $76 million (Air Force version), the armed services’ Osprey mostly consumes money. When one considers the R&D investment, the technological challenges of developing a VSTOL (vertical and short takeoff and landing) aircraft, repeated political assaults on the program, and the bad press suffered in the wake of multiple fatal accidents, it’s remarkable that the Osprey survived a quarter-century long struggle to reach the battlefield.

In “The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey” (Simon & Schuster), veteran military and aviation writer Richard Whittle examines the tortured history of this revolutionary hybrid aircraft. Most notably, the book includes previously unreported details concerning the deadly test crashes that nearly doomed the program. Earlier this month, I spoke with Whittle by phone about the Osprey, our conversation focusing on the myriad crashes, and the prospects for utilizing tiltrotor technology in civilian and commercial aircraft.

What makes the Osprey unique?

The Osprey is a tiltrotor, meaning it has rotors out on its wingtips that it uses to take off and land—like a helicopter. But once it gets airborne it tilts those rotors forward and flies like an airplane. It’s one solution to what I call the search for aviation’s Holy Grail, which began in the 1930s. Even then people were looking for a way to make an airplane that could, as one engineer put it, do substantially everything a bird can do.

The problem with creating that kind of aircraft has always been that you need two different kinds of thrust—vertical thrust and horizontal thrust—which adds extra equipment, extra weight, and extra drag. The tiltrotor is an elegant solution because you have only one mechanism to create thrust, and it transforms itself from vertical to horizontal thrust.

What advantages does the Osprey have over planes and helicopters?

The obvious advantage over airplanes is that it doesn’t need a runway to take off. The advantage over helicopters is speed. All the military helicopters in use today fly between 120 and 150 knots [138 and 172.5 mph]. The Osprey can fly faster because once it tilts its rotors forward, the rotors—in effect—become propellers. The Osprey cruises at about 250 knots [287.5 mph].

What are the disadvantages as compared to planes and helicopters?

The primary disadvantage is that to create rotors that can do the job of a rotor and the job of a propeller, they have to put a special twist in the rotor. That makes the Osprey less efficient than a helicopter at hovering. And to function as a rotor, the Osprey’s prop-rotors, as they’re called, have to be larger than an optimum propeller. So it doesn’t fly as efficiently in airplane mode as an airplane does.

What were some of the challenges engineers had to overcome to create the Osprey?

There were quite a few. To get the program started the Marines had to embed it in a larger program whose purpose was to create a tiltrotor that all four services could use. The original plan was to build an aircraft that would be able to do ten different missions. Among other things, it was supposed to be able to cruise at 30,000 feet, and also fly nap-of-the-earth—at treetop level. Its cabin was to be pressurized against nuclear, biological, and chemical contaminants. And it was to incorporate [then] cutting-edge technologies like fly-by-wire flight controls.

One major design difficulty was the fact that the Marines wanted a fuselage big enough to carry 24 combat-loaded Marines and a crew of four. At the same time, the aircraft had to fit on an amphibious assault ship. This meant that the Osprey’s rotors had to be smaller than optimum for the size and weight of the fuselage. For years, engineers struggled to find ways to reduce the weight of the aircraft to get the most out of the undersized rotors. At one point, they had several dozen engineers whose full-time job was to look for ways to cut weight.

Tell me about the crashes that occurred during development.

There were four. The first was June 11, 1991. A prototype was supposed to do some rudimentary flying at Wilmington, Delaware, where Boeing had its flight test center. The work on the prototype in question had been halted because defense secretary Dick Cheney had tried to cancel the Osprey [four years running from 1989 to 1992]. He had a fight with Congress, and the Marines mounted a semi-covert campaign on Capitol Hill to thwart him.

During this time, the program didn’t get full funding and this particular prototype—Aircraft 5—had been in storage for a few months. When it came out, a worker found an order that said two wires involved in the flight controls had to be switched. What he didn’t know is that prior to the aircraft being put into storage, that job had been done. So the wires that carried the flight control signals having to do with the roll rate were reverse-wired, and an electronic sensor called a vyro was reading the roll rate as being slow when it was fast and fast when it was slow. This caused the pilot to lose control. When he tried to land, the plane rolled right and left and banged one of its nacelles—the pods that hold the rotors and engines—on the ground. The pilot took off again to try to make a proper landing, and when he did the aircraft went out of control, staggered through the air, and plowed into the runway. It was due to a simple mistake; someone didn’t file the right paperwork.

What about the fatal crashes?

There were three. The first was July 20, 1992. Another prototype—Aircraft 4—had been at McKinley Climatic Laboratory [at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida], where they strap aircraft to a “run stand” and subject it to all sorts of weather conditions—from 65 degrees below zero to 125 degrees Fahrenheit. A Boeing crew of four, plus three Marines, were to fly Aircraft 4 back to Quantico, Virginia. They were under pressure to get it there in a hurry because Marine Corps generals were coming out to see it. As they flew in airplane mode, some sort of flammable fluid leaked from the right nacelle into the cowling at the front of the engine. When they tilted the rotors up to go into helicopter mode, the liquid went into the engine, causing a fire and disabling the right rotor. They crashed in the Potomac River, and all seven on board were killed.

The second fatal crash occurred on April 8, 2000, in Marana, Arizona, during operational testing. There are two kinds of tests that military aircraft go through. Development testing is where test pilots take a plane up, see what its flight envelope is, and make sure everything works properly. Operational testing is kind of like a test drive of a car. That day the Marines were doing a mock hostage rescue mission, which is interesting, because one of the things that led to the Osprey program was the failed attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980. Problems with the helicopters—including a crash at a refueling site in the Iranian desert called Desert One—caused that mission to fail.

The mock hostage rescue mission involved four Ospreys flying from Yuma to a little airport 25 miles northwest of Tucson. Two of the Ospreys were supposed to land, drop the infantry (18 Marines in one, 15 in the other) to prepare the “hostages” for removal, and then take off. Then the second two were to land and pick everybody up.

The failure began when the pilots in the first Osprey got distracted upon approach to Marana. One of their computers crashed and they had to have a discussion about whether to reboot it. Then the co-pilot dropped a piece of paper. I used the Freedom of Information Act to get a cockpit audio and video tape and on the tape you hear the co-pilot say, “Sergeant Moffitt, could you look underneath my chair for a paper that just fell off?” They fumble around for a few seconds looking for it, and then the pilot in the left hand seat who is flying the aircraft says, “When do I come down to three thousand?” The co-pilot says, “you should be coming down to three thousand. I should have told you that earlier.” So they started coming down very fast to try to get back on schedule. The plane behind them was surprised when they started descending as quickly as they did, and he started descending even faster. When they got down to just a couple hundred feet above the ground, the right rotor of the second Osprey went into a condition called vortex ring state. That sounds complicated, and it is, but essentially what happens is that a rotor that descends too quickly into its own downwash can start losing lift. The downwash begins to churn through the rotor and reduces the amount of thrust the rotor is creating. The right rotor lost lift, while the left rotor was still creating lift. The plane flipped to the right and went into the ground, killing everyone aboard.

The fourth crash occurred on December 11, 2000, at New River, North Carolina. In that case, the crew was doing practice nighttime landings using night-vision goggles. As they were getting ready to make their final approach, the pilot got an alert on his cockpit display that said “HYD 1 FAIL” [hydraulic failure]. One of the three hydraulic systems had failed due to a leak. Because of the computerized flight controls, when a failure like that is indicated, one of the first things the pilots do in many cases is to press a reset button that resets the flight control computer, so they can tell whether it’s an actual failure or just a false warning.{pagebreak}

No one knew it at the time and the pilots had no way of knowing, but the flight control software had been written in a way that caused the pitch of the rotors to go flat when they should have been at an angle to create thrust. They were flying in airplane mode and the pitch on both rotors went flat. Because of the leak, the computer started restoring the pitch in the rotor blades, but as it did there was more hydraulic pressure on the right rotor than on the left. So the pitch was restored at a different rate. That caused the aircraft to start yawing left and right, and as the pilots struggled to keep the plane flying straight they hit the reset button eight or nine more times. The investigation couldn’t determine whether they did that intentionally or whether they were just being thrown around the cockpit and accidentally hitting the button. The effect was to repeat the pattern over and over again (of the rotor pitch going flat and then coming back at a different rate on each rotor). Ultimately they lost forward airspeed and the aircraft stalled and crashed. All four Marines aboard were killed. That was when the Osprey became notorious and a national scandal.

In light of the design challenges and crashes, how did the project stay alive?

Some people will tell you that it was pork barrel politics, and there was an element of that. Boeing hired subcontractors in 44 states to make sure they got the broadest Congressional support possible, and they did all the usual things that defense contractors do to lobby Congress. But what really kept it alive was the determination of the Marine Corps to have the aircraft.

One of the things I’m sure a lot of people don’t appreciate—I only began to appreciate it when I started writing the book—is that the Marines, besides being the smallest and most unified service, are also the most paranoid. Throughout their history there have been times when people advocated abolishing or shrinking the Marine Corps. The Marines live in fear that if they don’t remain different, somebody is going to come along and say, “Why don’t we just fold them into the Army?” The Marines saw the Osprey as a way to guarantee their future. And the more they fought for it, the more convinced they became that they had to have it.

Another important reason it stayed alive was the dream it represents. One of the things that the Marines and manufacturers emphasized and won a lot of converts with in Congress was the idea that once the Marines proved the tiltrotor worked, civilian airlines would buy them and regional air transport would slowly give way to tiltrotors. And if the U.S. produced them, the whole world would buy them from us.

How close are we to that being reality?

Pretty far away. Bell Helicopter and Boeing began working on a small civilian tiltrotor back in the 1990s. Boeing ultimately dropped out of the project and their place was taken by a subsidiary of Finmeccanica called AgustaWestland. The companies are still working on that tiltrotor, which is now called the BA609. I don’t know what the status is, but it has not gone into production. There is also a European consortium that AgustaWestland is part of that is working on another tiltrotor design called the Erica.

Then there is a very creative engineer in California [Abe Karem] that is working on a tiltrotor called the AeroTrain, which is the size of a 737. He thinks he’ll be able to offer it for sale to commercial airlines within the next eight or nine years.

So the dream is alive, but it hasn’t come true, and one reason it hasn’t is because the Osprey—with all of its failures—tainted the tiltrotor idea.

What’s the latest on the Osprey that crashed in April in Afghanistan?

The Air Force sent five Ospreys to Afghanistan in late March or early April. One of them crashed on April 9 (April 8 here) and the investigation is not complete but it appears that the cause was similar to what’s caused a lot of helicopters to crash in Iraq and Afghanistan—something called a brownout landing, where the rotor kicks up so much dust that the pilot loses situational awareness.

How much has the Osprey cost taxpayers to date?

The figures are dramatic. Critics like to use what is called total program unit cost. That includes the total number of aircraft bought, modifications, spare parts, weapons, all the support, facilities, R&D for improvements, etc. The total they expect to spend to buy 360 Ospreys for the Marines, 50 for the Air Force, and 48 for the Navy is $53 billion. That works out to an average cost of $118 million each.

With as much as tiltrotors cost, will there ever be a market for them?

Right now, every tiltrotor that has been built has been very expensive. It’s very complex machinery and difficult to build. A Bell Helicopter executive told me they weren’t sure there was going to be a market for the [BA]609 because its cost would be around $20 million. For that amount of money you can get a commercial helicopter and a small commercial airplane. There are people who think it will be like the Concorde—a wonderful way to fly, but too expensive to be commercially viable.