There is an urban legend which can trace its roots back to the 1930s that the bumble bee with its large body and relatively tiny wings was an aerodynamic impossibility. As some observers commented, the bumble bee flew because it did not know that it was scientifically impossible for it to do so. Like the bumble bee, the V-22 Osprey has confounded its critics. It flies and very well. Both Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations versions of the Osprey have been in Iraq and are now operating in Afghanistan where the aircraft’s combination of speed, range and altitude make it a perfect platform for that country.
The ability of the Osprey to fly like a plane and also take off and land like a helicopter is only one of its more impressive features. Equally astounding has been its ability to withstand the Department of Defense’s byzantine acquisition process as well as a series of calamitous crashes early in its development. The labyrinthine story of the how the V-22 came to be is now told in a new book by former Dallas Morning News reporter Richard Whittle. The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey, is part the tale of an epic quest by a few determined individuals, most notable Dick Spivey of Bell Helicopters, who were able to go from vision to reality and overcome heartbreak on the way.
The book is also partly a “how-to” manual for those who want to understand what it takes too design, develop, test and then deploy a major weapons system. Finally, it is also part tragedy when the program experiences three fatal crashes over an eight year period that left 30 men dead. Part of the value of The Dream Machine is Whittle’s ability to explain clearly and without emotion the complex technical and aerodynamic conditions that led to these crashes and nearly to the demise of the entire program.
Whittle’s story is not just for aviation buffs and military historians. It is relevant to decisions being made today about the future of the U.S. military. Long-time critics of the V-22 program are again trying to go after the program, seeking now not to terminate it but merely truncate the production run and substitute for the Osprey slower and less capable aircraft. This is ironic since both the Marine Corps and the Air Force would like to see production of the V-22 increase.
The United States dominated most of the wars of the last century because of its ability to deploy airpower in quantities and of a quality that our adversaries were unable to match. To a large extent this still holds true today. Without the lift provided by the UH-60 Blackhawks, the C-17 and C-130s, the refueling by the KC-135s, surveillance from helicopters such as the Kiowa Warriors and fixed wing systems such as the TR-1 and strike by Apaches, UH-1s, F-16 and F-18 fighters and B-1 and B-52 bombers, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have begun much less succeeded.
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