Osprey at War

Can the MV-22 pass muster in Afghanistan?

The Osprey’s role in Afghanistan has been mainly assault support: transporting troops and supplies (here, Army soldiers unload gear from an MV-22 at a remote combat outpost). (Ed Darack)
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The history of the V-22 used to bother Staff Sergeant Brian Freeman. He rejoined the Marine Corps after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, hoping to return to a CH-46 squadron, but his only option was an Osprey unit. “In the beginning, nobody wanted to fly on the Osprey,” Freeman says. The 2000 Osprey crash had killed a friend of his from boot camp. “I went into the program not trusting the aircraft, and with the mentality that the MV-22 was going to have to prove itself to me. And through the years, it did.” (To date, Freeman has logged more than 1,300 hours in the Osprey, one of the highest numbers in the V-22 program.)

Freeman is now convinced that the Osprey is safe. “I like that it tells you what’s wrong with it,” he says. “I like that once you understand how to use the computer system, the multi-function displays, the aircraft will give you information that as a CH-46 guy, you had to know what to smell, what to hear, and really have an intimate knowledge of the aircraft to diagnose. There’s really nothing that I dislike about the Osprey. I used to love flying on the CH-46, until I flew the Osprey. There are lots of things I don’t miss about the CH-46, because the Osprey’s capabilities make that aircraft obsolete.”

Major Larry Nichols came to the squadron after flying single-seat F/A—18C Hornets. “It’s as if a CH-46 and an F-18 had a baby,” he says. “I feel like I’m stealing when I fly the Osprey; it is a fantastic aircraft to fly, taking off like a helicopter and the [high] performance of it in aircraft mode.”

He does think the cockpit design could be improved, and he also has a minor quibble with the software: “The number of keystrokes to get to certain menus is time-consuming and excessive. There are some real tedious steps to manage certain functions that are significantly simpler and more intuitive in a Hornet, specifically regarding communication and navigation.”

Once -261’s seven-month tour is complete, another Osprey unit will take its place—and learn from VMM-261’s

experience. In Afghanistan, for instance, Captain Chris Meixell explains, “Many of us fly the initial leg of the spiral approach a little tighter, as the forward operating bases here are a little smaller than those in Iraq, where the spiral approach was first used for the Osprey.”

Maintenance crews are also learning from the new environment. Sergeant Frank Mershon, an avionics technician, typically works 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week. (In addition to his primary job, Mershon is an aerial observer, so he often flies to aid a mission.) “Every day is different,” he says. “We get certain gripes [problems or parts needing repair], and once we get our gripes, we go out and troubleshoot them.” Mershon moved into -261 from a CH-46 squadron. He seems to thrive on the challenges posed by southern Afghanistan’s austerity. “The V-22 is definitely more of a challenge, but it definitely makes you think to the next level,” he tells me in the squadron’s small chow hall, filled with cards and letters from squadron members’ families. “The -46 was pretty simple, and the Osprey is brand new…. We’re experiencing maintenance issues that the Osprey has never experienced before.”

Perhaps the most powerful endorsement comes not from the Osprey squadron’s pilots or maintainers, but from one of its passengers. “The grunts are the proving ground for the Marine Corps. What [the Osprey] does for the grunts is what its true capability is,” says Gunnery Sergeant Morris. “Something may look good at the Miramar airshow, but what does it do for the infantry Marines? And that Osprey, in my opinion, closes the gap.... It is a huge push forward for the infantry.”

At the end of my stay with VMM-261, I asked to visit a remote outpost on the shores of Helmand River. I’d be traveling by Osprey, but this time as an anonymous passenger, not a media embed given the privilege of sitting in the cockpit jumpseat. With the temperature dipping below freezing, I stood with a small group of Marines and civilians as four CH-53s and two Ospreys idled on the edge of the runway.

When given the word, we hustled up the Osprey’s rear ramp, and I wrestled my backpacks onto my lap, crammed so tightly into the aircraft that I could hardly find my seatbelt. When we were all strapped in, the pilots taxied the aircraft onto the runway. By the anticipation on their faces, I could tell that most of the passengers had never flown in an Osprey before. The crew chief made sure everyone knew to hold on; once he’d answered the pilot’s question—“Ready to go fast?”—we’d all shift toward the open rear ramp.

About Ed Darack
Ed Darack

Air & Space/Smithsonian contributing editor Ed Darack’s forthcoming book, The Final Mission of Extortion 17 (Smithsonian Books, 2017), covers the story of the people and circumstances of Extortion 17 and its downing in Afghanistan in August 2011. The shootdown was the single deadliest incident in the war in Afghanistan. The book grew out of his article in the Feb./Mar. 2015 issue. See his website and Facebook page for more information.

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