Ex-Green Beret Surprised by Business as Usual in
Versailles on the Potomac

April 23, 2002

Comment: #445

Discussion Thread - Comment #s - 354, 273, 237, 401, 405, 442

The five-year defense plan now before Congress will continue to pump billions into the $37 billion buy 437 V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft for the Marines. This horror story began development at the height of the Cold War in 1982, although it is a flawed concept with a string of crashes reaching back to 1955 [see Comment #401]. The V-22 is a hybrid aircraft designed to take off and land like a helicopter while tilting its rotors forward to fly like an airplane. It went into low rate production in 1997, well before it was fully tested. Of particular concern is the V-22's susceptibility to a deadly aerodynamic phenomenon known as vortex ring state (VRS).

VRS takes the form of a sudden lost of lift in a rotor when a helicopter descends too rapidly, as is often the case during a combat assault into a heavily defended landing zone. While all conventional helicopters are susceptible to VRS, it is relatively easy to survive, if the pilot knows what he or she is doing. This is not the case for the V-22, however, because its rotors and engines are mounted on the end of each wing. VRS in a V-22 takes the form of a sudden lost of lift on one rotor, while the other rotor is still lifting. The combination of lift on one side with no lift on the other side can snap the V-22 go into a quick, uncontrollable roll, ending in an inverted dive into the ground. Four V-22s have crashed for a variety of reasons. In December 2000, the V-22 was grounded after killing 23 Marines in 2 crashes in one year, one involving VRS on April 8, 2000 killed 19 Marines. There is no technical fix for VRS; it is a phenomenon of physics. Pilots must simply avoid descending too fast, but floating into a combat zone makes the V-22 much easier to shoot down.

The recent dustup in the Shah-I-Kot Valley reminds us that hot landing zones are a fact of life in combat [see Comment #442]. Moreover local conditionsólike sudden updrafts in mountainous regionsócan make it difficult for pilots to sense when they are descending too fast, and the onset of VRS can occur suddenly, with little or no warning, particularly if the pilot is distracted by the pressures of combat. So, unlike conventional helicopters, there is no room for error in the V-22.

Nevertheless, the administration has chosen to extend the V-22s buy-before-fly strategy by keeping the V-22 in production, albeit at far lower production rates than were projected by the Clinton Administration, until its "fixes" have been tested over the next two years. Now, after a few years of embarrassed silence, the Tilt Rotor Caucus is regrouping like the Taliban on Capital Hill to save the V-22. The Marine Corps leadership still refuses to buy safer, lower-cost conventional helicopter alternatives, and reports are now floating around the Pentagon that it even wants to accelerate the V-22's production before the new round tests are completed.

On the other hand, my good friend J Styker (Tilt) Meyer (no relation to Tilt Rotor), a former Green Beret with heavy combat time in Vietnam, is surprised that the Marine leadership forgot to remember the 19 Marines killed by VRS on the second anniversary of their deaths.

Marines's silence surprising.

J. Stryker Meyer
North County Times
April 21, 2002 [re-printed with permission of the author]

The Marine Corps prides itself on remembering its history and the major events of its storied defense of America.

So I found it somewhat surprising at the lack of public notice by the Corps on April 8, marking the two-year anniversary of the hybrid prop-rotor MV-22 Osprey crash in Marana, Ariz. The controversial plane crashed during a testing and evaluation flight, killing 19 Marinesó14 from Camp Pendleton, one from Miramar and the four-man flight crew.

If any public notice was released by the Corps, I missed it.

To put the crash of April 8, 2000 in perspective, more Marines died in the Arizona desert airport during a training exercise 30 miles northwest of Tucson than have been killed during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

The 14-man contingent from Camp Pendleton's 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment were the so-called grunts who were training for the first time in an Osprey dubbed "Nighthawk 72." They were training to evacuate citizens in wartime conditions.

But that night, just before 8 p.m., when Nighthawk 72 approached the Marana airport, something went terribly wrong. Nighthawk 72 was one of four Ospreys and other aircraft in the training operation. During its descent, in two critical seconds, eyewitnesses said the Osprey rolled violently to its right and plunged nose-first into the ground, exploding in flames, killing all 19 Marines.

The key villain in the crash was an aerodynamic phenomenon called asymmetrical vortex ring state, or power settling, which occurs when one of the aircraft's two prop-rotors loses its ability to lift. That night, the right prop-rotor went into power settling, losing its lift capability. The left prop-rotor continued to lift and drove the aircraft into the ground.

Several panels and investigations have looked into that crash and the MV-22 crash in December 2000 that killed four more Marines.

Within a few weeks, the Marines will once again begin testing the MV-22, with the hope of ultimately ushering in a full production order for more than 450 Ospreys to replace the Corps' aging fleet of helicopters and to provide the Osprey for the U.S. Special Operations Commandówhich today is overseeing the special operations missions in Operation Enduring Freedom.

But Defense Department insiders point out that the critical question of power settling has not been adequately addressed. They note it was barely addressed or examined before the Marana crash.

Now, armed with a NASA report that found "no known aeromechanical phenomena that would stop ... the (M)V-22," the Corps is moving forward with its program at a cost of $100 million a month. That's not a typo.

The military-industrial-congressional complex is moving forward with the hybrid aircraft that has killed more Marines than armed terrorists without even pausing to salute those who were killed by the ill-fated bird.

J. Stryker Meyer is a staff writer for the North County Times.

end Tilt Meyer's Op-Ed

You will have to forgive my friend. Tilt is a former grunt, skilled in the arts of combat, but untutored in the arts of the courtier. Had he taken the time to compare the 2002 Armed Forces Day Poster to its predecessors, he would understood the inevitability of it all. He would know that Celebrating Hardware While Forgetting People is a core value that always reasserts its primacy in the hall of mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac. [see Comments 354, 273, 237].

Chuck Spinney

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