Putting the Osprey Safety Record in Perspective

By Robbin Laird

The question of Osprey safety has been brought to the fore again with the accident last year involving an Air Force variant of the aircraft.

Recently, the Department of Defense announced a return to flight of the aircraft.

This is the March 8, 2024 press release from NAVAIR announcing the return to flight:

Effective March 8, 2024 at 7 a.m. EST, Naval Air Systems Command is issuing a flight clearance for the V-22 Osprey thereby lifting the grounding. This decision follows a meticulous and data-driven approach prioritizing the safety of our aircrews.

A U.S. Air Force investigation began following the tragic loss of eight Airmen during the November 29, 2023, mishap off Yakushima, Japan. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the fallen.

In response to the preliminary investigation indicating a materiel failure of a V-22 component, the V-22 grounding was initiated on December 6, 2023. The grounding provided time for a thorough review of the mishap and formulation of risk mitigation controls to assist with safely returning the V-22 to flight operations.

In concert with the ongoing investigation, NAVAIR has diligently worked with the USAF-led investigation to identify the materiel failure that led to the mishap. Close coordination among key senior leaders across the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Air Force has been paramount in formulating the comprehensive review and return to flight plan, and this collaboration will continue.

Maintenance and procedural changes have been implemented to address the materiel failure that allow for a safe return to flight. The U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, and U.S. Air Force will each execute their return to flight plans according to service specific guidelines.

NAVAIR remains committed to transparency and safety regarding all V-22 operations. The V-22 plays an integral role in supporting our Nation’s defense and returning these vital assets to flight is critical to supporting our nation’s interests. NAVAIR continuously monitors data and trends from all aircraft platforms, so service members are provided the safest, most reliable aircraft possible. 

The safety of our pilots, aircrew and surrounding communities remains of paramount importance.

The Osprey has brought unique and transformative capabilities to the joint force and is a key part of the future as well.

The Marines certainly have found that not having the Osprey in their exercise in the Nordics as altering what they can do and what they can bring to the defense of the Nordic region, a region in the throes of a significant integration effort, crucial to European defense and to the defense of North America. I will write more about this in the future.

A recent article underscored the importance of providing context to the way the safety issue has been dealt with by the defense press in context.

As Maj. Gen. (Retired) Steve Busby in his article “Groupthink gives V-22 a bad rap” has argued:

The V-22 has long gotten a bad rap.  As soon as reports of a fatal accident involving an Osprey off the coast of Japan hit the internet last fall, the critics pounced, and a chorus of uninformed skeptics began posting and commenting, all asking: “Why is the Osprey still flying?”

Supporters of the V-22 are quick to point out that the data tells a completely different story.  In fact, the Osprey is a modern marvel in terms of performance and capability, and its operational safety record is on a par with the most widely used conventional rotorcraft flying in the Department of Defense today. 

Like all first-generation cutting-edge technologies, the introduction of the world’s first tiltrotor aircraft was a learning experience for everyone involved. During initial development, the program suffered several tragic accidents including the loss of 19 Marines during an operational test flight in 2000. That accident, more than any other single occurrence, damaged the reputation of the program. And, in the decades since then, the V-22 has been subjected to an overwhelmingly negative barrage of public opinion. 

But facts matter, and the data shows the 10-year average mishap rate for MV-22s is 3.43 per 100,000 flight hours. For context, that places the Osprey’s mishap rate squarely in the middle of the other type/model/series aircraft currently flown by the U.S. Marine Corps. Examined another way, in the 17 years since the aircraft was first introduced into operational service in 2007, there have been 14 loss-of-aircraft mishaps across all three services and one international partner that operate the aircraft—or .82 mishaps per year while flying over 500,000 flight hours.

Busby was there when the 3rd Marine Air Wing transitioned from the CH-46 to the Osprey. In fact, he presided over the last squadron to be trained for the CH-46 in anticipation of becoming a V-22 squadron.

This is the photo from February 22, 2013, and from a posting entitled: “Goodbye CH-46.”

Maj. Gen. Steve Busby, commanding general of 3rd Marine Air Wing presents eight Marines with their certificates certifying them as aircrew chiefs, during a Marine Helicopter Training Squadron 64 graduation ceremony here, Feb. 20. The eight Marines made history and became the last trainees to graduate with the CH-46 Sea Knight and will transition from using the CH-46 to the MV-22 Osprey. The Marine Corps has utilized this helicopter since 1964. (Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Demetrius Morgan/released).

He was quoted in this 2012 story where the Osprey flew at the Miramar Twilight Air Show held in October 2012.

The aircraft has proven its superior capability for Marine Corps operations in Afghanistan, and it soon will have the same impact in the Pacific for transport of troops and supplies in security operations or humanitarian relief, said Maj. Gen. (select) Steven Busby, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing headquartered at Miramar. 

The primary advantage is its enhanced speed and range, coupled with aerial refueling capability. Those attributes effectively allow the Corps to replace a helicopter fleet with airplanes while retaining the ability to operate off ships at sea or areas ashore lacking runways.

“In the end what it means is the infantryman in the back, or whoever it is, is out of harm’s way faster than anything else on the planet. And that’s important to us,” Busby said.

In the Pacific, with “the ability of that airplane to deploy with the KC-130s that provide refueling, we now have an asset that can range the entire theater. Either on a ship or without the ship … it’s going to be a game changer because higher, farther, faster is reality with that airplane.”

Safety is a crucial concern; but the ability of tiltrotor aircraft to work in ways that save lives is crucial as well.

That point was made in one interview which Ed Timperlake and I did when we visited in 2014 MAWTS-1, the Marine Corps’s key weapons instructor training center.

During our time at MAWTS-1, we had a chance to talk with Captain Justin “Lumbergh” Sing who represents the new generation of Osprey operators who have not transitioned from other platforms. He noted: “I have not flown any other fleet aircraft. I went through the flight school syllabus and straight to the MV-22 FRS. Captain Sing had just joined MAWTS and had been there only three days.”

He had two tours at sea with the 26th MEU as part of VMM-266(REIN). The 26th MEU was involved in the Odyssey Dawn Operation, but Captain Sing was part of the split Osprey force and was serving in Afghanistan during that operation. Sing served under Col. Romin Dasmalchi for his first tour and Lt. Col. Christopher Boniface for the second.

During his time in Afghanistan, the Marines were expanding the operational envelope for the Osprey.

As he noted: “We started utilizing V22 aircraft for the named operations in a new area previously unoccupied by US forces while I was there.”

He described one mission in Afghanistan in which the Osprey landed Marines and then quickly came back to move them out of harm’s way.

The quick turn-around capability of the Osprey is an important capability for the “devil dogs” coming out of the back of an Osprey.

Captain Singh noted: “Two Ospreys inserted troops to a particular landing zone, one on either side of a tree line. We departed and repositioned to a laager point about 15NM away. Fairly soon after, we were called back to move the Marines out of a suspected IED infested area. They could not safely cross the tree-lined ditch at night.

“The next day we found out that the Landing Zone (LZ) where we had conducted the insert had IEDs in it. We just happened to not land on any. That was our first operation after our unit had just arrived in Afghanistan.”

Captain Sing highlighted the quick turnaround time, which the Osprey was able to provide to the troops on the ground.

“From the time they called for immediate re-embark when we were on deck at the laager point, to the time they were repositioned, which included us landing, them loading, and us hopping the tree line and landing again was probably less than 15 minutes.”

Captain Sing after our interview, 2014/

Captain Sing highlighted the impact of speed in an emergency medical situation as well.

“We were onboard the ship and had a sailor with a gallbladder issue. It was about to rupture, and they needed to get him to a medical facility. We were just north of Somalia in the Horn of Africa, and the closest medical care facility was in Mombasa down in Kenya.

“This happened while a party was being held on the flight deck, with no flight ops schedule that day. We needed to get this guy to medical care.

“The deck crew cleared the front half of the boat and pulled the V22 out on spot within 45 minutes, and we were in the air 45 minutes later. We had to tank on the way, but we had him on deck in Mombasa, Kenya roughly 1,100NM away within 4+30 hours after takeoff.” 

When asked how the Osprey had advantages over rotorcraft in approaching LZs, the Captain highlighted the advantage of a lower audible signature.

“We can maintain an audible standoff for a little bit longer by staying in airplane mode up at altitude and only descending when approaching the objective area. It really reduces the enemy’s ability to know we’re coming.”

The capability which the Osprey delivers to “reduce the enemy’s ability to know we’re coming” is part of its operational envelope that delivers its users out of harms way.

Featured Photo: PACIFIC OCEAN (Nov. 20, 2020) A CMV-22B Osprey from the “Titans” of Fleet Logistics Multi-Mission Squadron (VRM) 30 lands on the flight deck of Nimitz-class nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). This evolution marked the first time the Navy’s CMV-22B Ospreys have landed on a carrier. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aaron T. Smith)