Image: The V-22 Osprey
Dusan Vranic  /  AP
The V-22 Osprey, a "tilt-rotor' aircraft, has won support from the Marines flying the machine in Iraq since 2007.
updated 10/20/2008 3:49:15 PM ET 2008-10-20T19:49:15

After a troubled history, the V-22 Osprey — half helicopter, half plane — has been ferrying troops and equipment across Iraq for just over a year without a major incident.

Critics say the Osprey, which was designed to replace transport helicopters, lacks firepower for defense in heavy combat.

But pilots say the Osprey makes up for that in speed, which one of them says can take the plane "like a bat out of hell" to altitudes safe from small-arms fire.

Since arriving at this sprawling desert base in western Iraq, a dozen Ospreys have been ferrying troops and equipment at forward operating bases. One even took around Barack Obama during his tour of Iraq earlier this year.

But on only a handful of occasions has the aircraft faced any serious enemy fire.

Avoiding risks
Military officials say this is partly a result of the changing nature of the war in Iraq as well as the advantages the high-flying Osprey has over the Vietnam-era Sea Knight helicopters they will eventually replace. The Osprey also avoids day flights into Baghdad or other tasks that entail excessive risk.

"It's not the same World War II tactics that we used to deal with, or even Vietnam tactics," said Maj. Paul Kopacz, who led two Ospreys on a recent mission to Fallujah. "We have not been battle-tested because we aren't going guns blazing into hot zones. Our nation is now too sensitive to the loss of soldiers to let that happen."

The military calls the Osprey a "tilt-rotor" aircraft, because it takes off with its rotors set vertically like a helicopter and glides in the air with them thrust forward as on an airplane. The shift requires only a pull of the lever by the pilot.

The aircraft, which took over two decades to develop, has been plagued by a series of technical failures and deadly crashes — including a pair in quick succession in 2000 that killed 23 Marines and nearly scuttled the entire project.

Some skeptics have attacked the design of the plane because they feel it is too slow in descent, lacks maneuverability, kicks up too much dust and should have been delayed until designers mastered the idea of "autorotation" — which would keep the rotors spinning even if both engines are taken out.

Another issue has been the lack of firepower on the Osprey, which does not include a mounted gun on the front as once envisaged — although the Marines have placed a machine gun at the rear.

$100 million per plane
There are also the aircraft's soaring costs, which have pushed the bill to over $100 million per unit including research and development expenses.

Still, it has won wide support from the Marines flying the machine in Iraq since September 2007, even among those with long experience as pilots of the CH-46 Sea Knight. They say problems experienced so far have been caused by desert dust and heat, mostly related to avionics and nothing that has overly confounded technicians.

"I used to fly the CH-46 and we couldn't do nearly what we do now in terms of weight, cargo, distance or speed," said Lt. Col. Christopher Seymour, commanding officer of what is now the third Osprey squadron at Asad air base, a complex in the desert of western Iraq that houses 10,000 U.S. servicemen.

Seymour and the other pilots at Asad say they've noticed the Osprey's advantages most. It can travel twice as fast and three times farther than the Sea Knight, is equipped with radar, lasers and a missile defense system, and soars at altitudes far above its 39-year-old predecessor.

'It's a gorilla'
"It's a gorilla. The ability to accelerate to speeds is so strong," Seymour said, adding that the Osprey's benefits will become even more evident as the military continues to move away from ground convoys, which face roadside bombs and ambushes. "Like a bat out of hell you're at altitudes safe from small arms fire."

The Osprey is certainly an awesome sight. In helicopter mode, its twin nacelles point downward as if they were pistols in a holster. At night, its neon-tipped rotors sparkle like emeralds.

During a mission last week, on which an Associated Press reporter and photographer accompanied Marines, the only problem involved its global positioning system.

But Maj. Andreas Lavato, one of the pilots, said the aircraft is built with so many backup systems — what the Marines call "redundancies" — that there are no concerns over engine or computer problems.

One engine can still power both propellors at a somewhat lower speed, he said as the aircraft traveled at 280 mph about 9,500 feet above Anbar province in western Iraq. Each vital computer system has at least two backups.

"I'm an old helicopter guy myself and I really didn't feel confident flying with this thing until about 70 hours," said Lavato, 36, who piloted the Sea Knight for a decade. "That's with the technology, because the flying is really easy. It didn't really take long to fall in love with this and realize its capabilities."

Lack of firepower
He conceded that the Osprey's lack of firepower — it has only a 7.62 mm machine gun at its rear, one fewer weapon than the Sea Knight — caused part of his initial skepticism.

But he insisted that speed and elevation were more important, as the Ospreys are largely avoiding descents into "hot zones" or violent areas unprepared by aircraft more geared for attack.

"Nobody sees us and you have to see something to shoot it," Lavato said. "If I'm coming into a situation I can just leave and get from 0 to 200 knots in about 10 seconds. I'm just gone."

Kopacz, meanwhile, rejected the idea that the multibillion dollar Osprey project was being shielded from the real fight to protect its record.

"We are flying into every zone out here — they are just not hot when we land," he said. "Is that because we are so quiet coming in? Is it because we're not low and slow?"

Kopacz said people can hear a helicopter from 10 miles away.

"You can't hear us until two miles away," he said, "and we're coming fast."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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