I used to work for the man who was the first to try and kill the V-22 Osprey, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Both have proved to be very hard to kill. Both have withstood an onslaught of negative press that undoubtedly would have killed lesser men or weapons systems. Both have risen from what seemed a terminal state to make valuable new contributions to national security.
The V-22 was designed from the ground up to address the inherent limitations of helicopters. We all remember the fiasco at the Desert One refueling site during the ill-fated attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages in Iran. The reason that the Special Operations team could not go directly to the embassy in Teheran was the insufficient range of available helicopters. Using fixed wing aircraft would have required U.S. forces to parachute into the site, something which always works better in the movies than in real life. So, helicopters were the platform of choice and that required a refueling stop. The result, as they say, is history.
So, the Osprey has twice the speed and a much longer range than military helicopters while being able to carry up to 24 fully equipped personnel. These features allow, for example, insertion and exfiltration of forces under the cover of darkness. It also permits what is essentially an airplane to operate from the limited and unimproved landing zones that are so commonly used by helicopters. In addition, because of the tiltrotor feature, the Osprey can deliver men and equipment like a traditional rotary wing system.
At one time, the V-22 was considered to be the bad boy of a broken defense acquisition system. Today, it is one of the workhorses for both the Marine Corps and Air Force Special Operations Command. More than 130 V-22s are operational. The team of Boeing and the Bell Helicopter division of Textron is currently executing a multiyear contract to produce 174 V-22s. The team has proposed a second multiyear to produce some 122 more. Yes, there have been a few recent incidents but given the hundreds of thousands of flying hours that the Osprey has racked up in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, the ratio is actually less than for many traditional helicopters. What is never mentioned in the press is the number of potential high threat situations the V-22 has been able to avoid as a result of its speed and agility.
Now, tiltrotor has jumped another hurdle, this time into the commercial aviation world. The Italian maker of advanced helicopters, AgustaWestland has put its version of a tiltrotor aircraft, the AW609 on the market. In truth, the AW609 is a V-22 “lite;” the aircraft was originally designed by a team consisting of Bell Helicopter and AgustaWestland. According to the New York Times, no less a figure than “hizzoner” the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is planning to buy one. What is significant here is that in order to be available for commercial sale and operation in U.S. airspace, the AW609 will have to pass civil aviation certification which is planned for 2015.
As commercial airspace becomes increasingly crowded and the ability of governments to construct new airports or expand existing ones decreases, there is likely to be a growing role for tiltrotor aircraft such as the AW609. Civilian agencies and even commercial operations are likely to find all kinds of uses for a tiltrotor. This is precisely what happened when the V-22 became operational.
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