Here’s a surprise: the V-22 Osprey has turned into the safest, most survivable rotorcraft the U.S. Marine Corps operates. The Osprey had its first fatal accident in ten years last April during a combat mission in Afghanistan, when an Air Force version hit the ground at high speed. But because of safety features built into the airframe, 16 of the 20 personnel on board survived. If you think that’s still one crash too many, then you better not look at the safety records of other rotorcraft in theater, because many of them are not faring as well. After 14 operational deployments and 100,000 flight hours, the Osprey is beginning to look like a real life-saver.
That’s not the way the V-22 began its history. Conceived as a versatile aircraft that could combine the land-anywhere agility of a helicopter with the speed (280 miles per hour) and range (375 miles) of a fixed-wing aircraft, the Osprey suffered two serious accidents during its development. Those accidents delayed fielding and left a lasting impression on critics, who to this day allege it is a flawed aircraft. The Marine Corps vigorously disagrees, arguing it is a safer and more flexible way of getting troops from ship to shore than any other means available. A mounting body of evidence from operational deployments indicates the Marines are right. Not only is the V-22 less likely to be hit by ground fire than conventional helicopters (because it flies faster and higher), but when it is hit it suffers less damage and if it crashes occupants are more likely to survive.
Over the last ten years, the V-22 mishap rate has been about half the average for the entire Marine aircraft fleet, and it is currently the lowest of any rotorcraft in that fleet. These averages are adjusted to reflect time actually flown, so it really is a surprisingly safe aircraft, considering it only recently entered service. New airframes usually have higher mishap rates than aircraft that have been operated for many years. Of course, none of this would matter if the Osprey couldn’t do much, but in fact it is living up to its potential for versatility, conducting everything from night raids and medical evacuations in Afghanistan to logistical support and humanitarian assistance in Haiti. It is also proving to be the most flexible airframe employed by Air Force special operators, who use it for an array of harrowing combat and rescue missions. Readiness rates for the Marine version are around 70 percent, which is quite respectable for a new and novel airframe.
But much of this progress has not been noticed by the political system, which finds it hard to forget the testing accidents that occurred many years ago. In fact, three different amendments are currently pending in Congress to delete some or all of the funding for the Osprey, and the president’s bipartisan deficit panel suggested ending production early because the program had a “troubled history” of developmental problems. That’s kind of like saying that Mr. Obama does not deserve reelection because he had a tough childhood, without looking at what he’s done lately. With only $15 billion left to be spent in a $70 billion acquisition program, it makes no sense to cut the V-22 program just as the Marines are about to reach their inventory goal. Costs are down, readiness is up, and the Osprey has become the safest way of moving troops around combat zones. This is one program that deserves to stay on track.