This morning I get to feel that sensation for myself, as I ride along on a resupply mission. Once loaded and fueled, two MV-22s taxi onto the main runway. With all diagnostic indicators on the aircraft’s multi-function displays in the OK, and with clearance from the tower, our Osprey lifts into the air from a dead standstill, the other from a slow roll. As the aircraft begins its smooth arc forward, one of the pilots asks the crew chief, “Ready to go fast?”
Lieutenant Colonel Bianca, one of the program’s longest-serving Osprey pilots (he has 1,600 hours as an MV-22 pilot), says of passengers at this point in their first flight: “Open up the throttles and pull the nose back, and you should see the look of incredulity on their faces.” With one hand on the thrust control lever and another on the control stick (which in helicopter mode works like a cyclic and in airplane mode like a regular airplane control stick), the pilot rotates the two nacelles forward toward airplane mode, and the aircraft’s smooth upward arc is replaced by slight buffeting. With the airspeed indicator parked at 180 knots (the top speeds of the fastest production military helicopters range between 150 and 170 knots), the pilot pulls back on the stick, making a hard-right bank and corkscrewing the Osprey steeply upward. “You can tell when a grunt has flown on the MV-22 before by the way he cinches down the straps and holds on to the shoulder strap that’s towards the front of the aircraft,” says Bianca. “He knows what kind of acceleration is coming.”
And accelerate it does, its powerful engines enabling it to climb at thousands of feet per minute. Once at altitude, the speed indicator pushes up to about 230 knots, although the Osprey can go much faster. After just a few minutes of flying, we corkscrew back down, and with a rattle reminiscent of a loud lawnmower engine, the nacelles transition back into helicopter mode, and the craft drops onto a landing zone at a combat outpost near the Helmand River.
As the aircraft approaches the ground, stacks of large container boxes rise into view, then dust flies up. Another container box, this one just eight feet in front of the nose, emerges from the dust. The Osprey smoothly touches down. Marines crammed in the back file out a side door as a forklift pulls out two “tri-walls”—large tote boxes made of triple-layer paperboard—full of supplies. At many outposts, the Osprey’s powerful engines create a brownout, a blinding plume of dust. On this landing, the air is relatively clear. Pointing to river rocks that Marines have taken from the Helmand and spread over the landing zone, Major Will Grant explains that the improvised surface has created better visibility for landing here.
Once all passengers and their gear have been stowed, the Osprey again rises straight up into the sky.
The Marines of VMM-261 understand their place in V-22 history. The squadron’s experiences, particularly combat deployments, will have far-reaching consequences, and the squadron’s suggestions will help determine not only what hardware gets used, but also potential software upgrades.
“We are going to write a whole new chapter in Osprey employment out here,” says Colonel George Amland, deputy commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. He acknowledges the great strides made by the three MV-22 deployments to Iraq, but notes that the two theaters have many differences. As planners at VMM-261 develop a mission that will take the Osprey from Bastion to the Pakistani border, 850 miles round trip, Amland comments on the Osprey’s benefits.
“The Osprey can collapse the battlespace, and go into areas that are not suitable for landing a [KC]-130J,” he says. And because helicopters are transported to Afghanistan as cargo on a C-5, and the Osprey arrives there under its own power, it can free “a tremendous amount of strategic lift by self-deploying,” says Amland.
The squadron has 10 Ospreys, and missions usually run four to six hours, with some lasting as long as eight. Both aviators and ground crew serve either day or night shifts, but as missions change, flights are often extended, and day pilots often “hot seat” with night pilots, meaning the pilots and crew just swap places while the MV-22 refuels, and the aircraft never shuts down. The squadron is preparing for the coming troop surge, and that, along with the regular day-to-day resupply and delivery operations, keeps the Ospreys running round the clock, 18 or 20 hours straight, requiring maintenance crews to perform basic fixes in between “hops” with the proprotors spinning above them.