From The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey by Richard Whittle. Copyright 2010 by James Richard Whittle. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, New York. The author will be answering questions here during the week of January 24 to 28.
Five seconds into the flight, by the time they were 10 feet in the air, test pilot Grady Wilson knew he had a tiger by the tail. A minute and a half later, he was sure he and his copilot were about to meet their maker.
The maiden flight of the fifth Osprey prototype, Aircraft 5, began just after 6 p.m. on June 11, 1991, at Greater Wilmington Airport in Delaware, where Boeing Helicopter had its flight test center. Wilson, 50 at the time, had gone to work for Boeing just seven months earlier, but test pilots didn’t come with much more experience. A crusty good oleboy from Mississippi, Wilson had learned his trade flying helicopters and airplanes in the Army for 23 years, 14 of them as a test pilot. He spent five of those at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, were he flew the XV-15. Wilson’s copilot in Aircraft 5 that day was Lynn Freisner, the 54-year-old flight test director at Boeing Helicopter.
They lifted off after an annoying couple of hours in the cockpit spent sweating up their flight suits as engineers fixed finicky monitoring instruments in the back cabin. The Osprey prototypes had lousy air-conditioning, and though it was only 70 degrees outside, sunshine streaming through the windshield was baking the pilots. The cockpit’s four computerized Multi-Function Displays—cathode-ray tubes designed to take the place of the dials and gauges on older aircraft—were generating so much heat they were starting to fail. By the time the engineers climbed out, Wilson could think of several reasons he and Freisner should just go back to the hangar. Instead, they taxied out to an asphalt test pad to start flying.
Aircraft 5, painted in Marine Corps camouflage, had never flown before. This was just to be a brief hover, no more than 30 minutes at no more than 30 feet, a shakedown to check out some systems and check off a box so Boeing could get a step closer to turning Aircraft 5 over to the government and getting paid for it. Boeing and Bell had started the fifth prototype in 1988, but stopped for several months in 1989 after [then defense secretary Richard] Cheney announced he was canceling the Osprey. The companies resumed work on Aircraft 5 later that year, after Congress voted more money, but finishing touches were still being put on the Osprey prototype in a hangar at Wilmington just days before Wilson and Freisner climbed aboard.
Workers at Wilmington showed signs of being rushed. Government inspectors had been complaining for months about sloppiness at the facility. The inspectors kept finding FOD—foreign object debris—in and around the Osprey prototypes there. FOD, which rhymes with “sod,” is anything that might damage an aircraft—a bit of wire, a coin, a mislaid tool, metal shavings, you name it. FOD sucked into a turbine engine can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage, even a crash. That’s why runways at military bases and flight decks of aircraft carriers are regularly walked by lines of troops or sailors looking for FOD. Over the previous six months, government inspectors had found electric plugs, scissors, rags, a vacuum tool attachment, a six-inch drill bit, a flashlight, nuts, washers, all kinds of FOD in the Osprey prototypes at Wilmington, including Aircraft 5. Seven days before Wilson’s and Freisner’s flight, the government supervisor at Wilmington had suspended flight operations there and stopped payments to Boeing until the company took action to stop the problem. Boeing dew up an anti-FOD plan and the flight suspension was lifted the morning of June 11.
Freisner was copiloting that day only because the engineers had needed so much time to get Aircraft 5 ready. The scheduled copilot had a doctor’s appointment he didn’t want to miss, so Freisner offered to substitute. Like Wilson, Freisner knew something was wrong within seconds after they took off. Aircraft 5 heaved into the air unsteadily, wobbling from side to side like a patient standing up after months of being bedridden. Wilson couldn’t make it do what he wanted. The stick felt sluggish, unresponsive. In nearly three decades of flying, he’d never had an aircraft behave this way. As he struggled with the stick, Freisner said, “Look, let’s get on the ground now.”
“Yeah, we’ve got to get it on the ground,” Wilson muttered, clearly too busy to talk.
Jim Schaefer was in the flight test center tower, watching on closed-circuit video with some flight test engineers. “Aren’t we paying our pilots enough, or are we not training them enough?” Schaefer cracked as they watched the Osprey weave.