Controversial Osprey aircraft deployed to Iraq

WASHINGTON — The first combat squadron of tilt-rotor V-22 Ospreys has been quietly deployed to Iraq, ushering a new form of aerial technology into 21st Century warfare.

A Marine Corps aviation squadron and 10 Ospreys left for Iraq on Monday aboard the U.S.S. Wasp, a small Navy aircraft carrier known as an amphibious assault ship, said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Eric Dent.

The departure from the New River Marine Corps Air Station near Jacksonville, N.C., was made under extremely tight security with no advance notice to the news media and no ceremonial speeches by Marine Corps officials. ``It was just another workday for the squadron,'' Dent said.

Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263, nicknamed ``The Thunder Chickens,'' will be based at the Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq for at least seven months of combat operations. The Marine Corps Ospreys, known as MV-22s, will be used to ferry Marines as well as cargo throughout predominately Sunni Muslim Anbar province.

Dent, citing ``operational security,'' offered only limited details about the deployment and said he was not allowed to discuss the timetable of the trip or scheduled arrival in Iraq. The V-22s, which, in military-speak can ``self-deploy'' into war zones, could conceivably leave the Wasp en route and make the rest of the journey by air.

The deployment marks a long-sought goal after three-decades of tilt-rotor technology that began with the development and flight of Bell Helicopter's XV-15 prototype in the 1970s. Fort Worth-based Bell is manufacturing the Osprey with Boeing Helicopters of Ridley Township, Pa.

The aircraft, which flies like an airplane and lands and takes off like a helicopter, reaches speeds and distances well beyond that of traditional helicopters and is considered far more agile than the aging CH-46 ``Sea Knight'' helicopters that it s replacing.

But the Osprey's entry into combat will be under intense scrutiny after years of controversy that included delays, steadily rising costs and two fatal crashes in 2000 that nearly led to the program's cancellation.

Critics say the tilt-rotor concept is still unproven and could endanger the lives of its crew members in combat. Supporters say it is ideal for combat and will enable Marines to get into hot spots faster and more safely.

The aircraft has provided years of employment at Bell's plants in Texas, where about 1,700 employees manufacture major Osprey components at Grand Prairie and Hurst, near Dallas. The aircraft is assembled by up to 800 workers at another Bell plant in Amarillo.

Bell-Boeing spokesman Bob Leder, based in Amarillo, said workers weren't aware that their handiwork was on its way to Iraq until he posted a copy of a Marine Corps Times article about the deployment.

``There was a feeling of great excitement and at the same time we were praying for the safety of all the Marines,'' Leder said. ``It's like `OK, this is the real thing.'''

Dent said that ``just under 100'' members of the squadron were deployed along with the aircraft after training for the mission for more than a year.

The Thunder Chickens' 28 pilots, including two women, volunteered and were chosen by a Marine Corps selection board.

The squadron commander is Lt. Col. Paul J. Rock Jr., who has been flying Ospreys since the 1990s. At least a third of the squadron has had previous combat experience in Iraq.