by Stephen Bryen
The costly Osprey (MV-22) has had another setback. A US Marine Osprey has crashed in the water near Camp Schwab in Okinawa. Camp Schwab is also known as the Smedley Butler Marine Base. Major General Butler, a two time Medal of Honor winner, was a pioneering Marine General and advocate but also a leading isolationist in the 1930’s.
The five crew members of the Schwab crash, a few of them hurt, were all rescued. The pilot was able to get his aircraft into the water and avoid a hard landing on land which would have almost certainly resulted in a fatal crash. Nonetheless, even the crash in the water touched off a furor in Okinawa, where the locals don’t want the Osprey there, nor do they really want the Marines either. The Marines immediately suspended all Osprey operations pending an investigation on the cause, although it is already pretty well known what happened.
Many will be surprised that the crash of the Osprey was an accident caused while it was in a refueling operation. The Osprey is a rather larger vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. It was acquired by the Marines for long range infiltration and resupply missions. The aircraft is very expensive, topping $72 million dollars a copy, expensive to maintain and expensive to operate. The overall procurement of 408 aircraft cost is $44.31 billion (around 200 have been manufactured, more coming) and $10.52 billion was invested so far in R&D. Additional costs to fix problems and to add capabilities is not known.
Most of Osprey’s missions can be better carried out by standard fixed wing aircraft or standard helicopters. The Osprey virtue is its overland speed and much longer operating range. Here it outperforms a traditional helicopter, but the trade off is in risk. The aircraft is risky because there are severe restrictions on how to use it. It has trouble in dusty conditions and can only safely be landed on prepared surfaces. The risks are brown out conditions and ingestions of dust particles and debris.
The Osprey’s two engines each are equipped with an air filtration system. The one on the Marine MV-22 Osprey is called an Engine Air Particle Separator (EAPS) produced by Eaton Corporation. In a crash in Hawaii in brown-out conditions, two marines were killed and a number hurt. A US Marine “Mishap Board” found that the EAPS failure was one of the causes of the crash in Hawaii in 2015. Reportedly maintenance crews in the field have been taking ladies panty hose stockings and stretching them over the air inlets to trap particles. The Air Force version of the V-22 Osprey (CV-22) does not use the same EAPS and the Marines are working on a replacement for theirs.
There are active lawsuits against Boeing, Textron Bell, Eaton and other companies because of the deaths and injuries involving the Osprey.
One of the key differences between the Osprey and a standard helicopter is what to do in emergency situations. A standard helicopter, in the case of an engine failure or loss of power, is capable of auto-rotating. The rotor (or rotors in the case of the Chinook and some Russian helicopters) is an air foil. When power is lost the air foil keeps rotating and acts as a foil, slowing down the descent of the machine. This allows that a safe landing can be made in case of an engine failure.
But the Osprey cannot auto-rotate. The two large propellers do not have sufficient air foil lift to permit safe auto-rotation. Thus if power is lost especially in a landing operation*, the aircraft crashes. For this reason, the President of the United States is not ever allowed on-board an Osprey. The Osprey is not equipped with ejection seats and because its top mission is troop transport, the troops are hostage to a dangerous safety hazard.
The crash in Okinawa was not an air filtration problem. According to what can be pieced together from news reports, the crash happened in a refueling training accident.
The Osprey mission has been expanded to use it as an aerial refueling truck to support the Marine’s F-35 as they come online starting next year. The Osprey can carry up to 10,000 pounds of fuel and a refueling system has been added to the platform. It is called the V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS), which can be put on-board the aircraft when it is needed to act as a refueling platform. VARS is still a development and testing item, and it was a VARS exercise that led to the Okinawa crash. Again, according to news reports, the refueling hose (or line) got tangled up in one of the V-22 props, probably when it was released from the aircraft it was refueling. It is not clear if the Osprey was refueling another V-22 in the exercise nor is it clear which of the two planes crashed. But the incident took out one engine and made the V-22 unstable. It seems the V-22 does not fly for long on one engine, and the pilot realized that he could not make it back to base, which would have been the Futenma Air Force Base in the center of Okinawa. Thus, he ditched the Osprey.
The video below shows an Osprey being refueled by a KC-130J (the K indicates the C-130 is a refueling aircraft) and not an Osprey refueling another aircraft or another Osprey.
We don’t know if the VARS problem is systemic, or whether it was a one-off accident. What does seem to be the case is there are better platforms, especially airplanes such as the KC-130J or even the now cancelled but excellent C-27J, suited to a refueling mission. Because the F-35 does not carry much stores, extending its mission time over target (which seems to be the point of V-22 refueling) seems unnecessary and unneeded.
Some time back I spoke to a number of senior active duty and Marine senior officers about the Osprey. It is a very touchy subject. The Marines think this is “their” platform and if “they” want it, they have their reasons. End of discussion.
The Osprey remains a controversial aircraft for the Marines and the Air Force. It has done poorly as an export item and some countries that initially wanted it seem to have backed out of deals, seemingly including Israel, often a top early technology adopter. Conventional helicopters and fixed wing aircraft may better perform the missions of the Osprey at lower acquisition cost and risk. We are not at the end of the saga, but the Osprey is a cautionary tale of how pushing the technology envelope can fail, and how hard it is to unwind a mistake once the error has been made.
*When the Osprey is in level flight and has an engine failure it can continue flying on one engine but it cannot land like an airplane, meaning that it is doubtful that the platform could land safely. Some argue the aircraft can glide to a landing, but if it was gliding when it hit ground the props would be torn off and it is likely the aircraft would tilt over or suffer other catastrophic damage.