WASHINGTON — When the president lifts off from the White House lawn, he’s joined by a few new wingmen.
On President Barack Obama’s vacation flight Saturday to Martha’s Vineyard, new MV-22 Ospreys made their debut escorting his staff, Secret Service agents and the news media – although not the chief executive himself – to the island off the Massachusetts coast.
The Osprey is a tilt-rotor aircraft, which takes off vertically like a helicopter and then can turn its rotors in the air to fly like an airplane. A Marine Corps news release said the Osprey could “fly twice as fast, carry three times as much and fly four times the distance of the older CH-46E helicopter it is replacing.”
“It’s a lot faster than helicopters are, and can land in most of the places helicopters can land,” said Richard Whittle, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who wrote a book on the Osprey in 2010. “It’s not a perfect helicopter, it’s not a perfect airplane, but it combines the most desirable features of both.”
Marine Helicopter Squadron One, the group that’s charged with transporting the president and other VIPs, will receive 12 Ospreys, at $70 million apiece, to replace its collection of CH-46E helicopters. Capt. Richard Ulsh, a public affairs officer for the Marine Corps, said the Ospreys won’t be used to transport the president.
“If I were a reporter covering the White House these days,” Whittle said, “I would be quite glad that they were going to transfer the press pool in the V-22 instead of the old helicopters they used to fly.”
Built by a partnership between Bell Helicopter and the Boeing Co., the aircraft is touted as a paradigm-shifter for its unique hybrid design. While the fuselage is made in Philadelphia, many of the parts are made in Fort Worth, Texas, and its final assembly is in Amarillo, Texas.
The Osprey has had a long and sometimes difficult history. It made brief appearances in the late 1980s and ’90s as the military worked to create a tilt-rotor aircraft, but two crashes in 2000 that killed 23 people grounded the aircraft. After years of maintenance and a redesign, a new version was cleared for full deployment in late 2005.
In May, Ulsh told McClatchy that the aircraft’s rate of Class A mishaps – those that cause death, permanent injury or more than $2 million in damage – is 1.48 per 100,000 hours of flying time; essentially on par with the CH-46.
“There were definitely some troubled times in the very beginning, in 2000,” Ulsh said. “ . . . What we’ve seen now, now going into its sixth year in Iraq and/or Afghanistan . . . this is a survivable aircraft, a safe aircraft, a dependable aircraft and highly effective.”
He added that the Osprey has a strong resume in combat missions. Osprey pilots helped rescue an F-15 pilot who was downed in Libya in 2011, and were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a June 2012 raid in Afghanistan.
But despite a cleaner bill of health, Ospreys have crashed three times since they were redesigned, once in 2010 and twice in 2012. The military classified all three crashes as due to pilot error, but Donald Harvel, a retired brigadier general who worked on the 2010 crash’s accident report, has since charged the military with covering up mechanical errors with the Osprey.
He told Wired magazine last year that the aircraft was “just not ready yet.”
The $70 million price tag is daunting. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office estimated that each flight hour of the Osprey costs more than $11,000.
Ulsh said the figure now was below $10,000 per hour and that as with all aircraft, continual use would help bring down the price further for the Osprey.
“It’s still a very young airplane at the moment,” he said. “The more and more we use this aircraft, folks will start to see the cost per flight hour go down.”
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