MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va (Reuters) - The U.S. Marine Corps will send MV-22 Ospreys to Iraq this year in the first combat mission for the hybrid aircraft expected to carry troops in and out of battle at unprecedented speed.
“It is our fervent feeling that this aircraft is the most capable, survivable aircraft that we carry our most important weapons system in, which is the Marine or rifleman,” said Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, the Marines’ deputy commandant for aviation.
The Marines expect speed to protect the Osprey from the ground-fire Iraqi insurgents have used to down U.S. helicopters this year, the Marine Corps said on Friday. The Osprey hovers like a helicopter and flies like a plane.
“If you’ve ever gone rabbit hunting, you know that it’s harder to shoot a rabbit that’s running than the one that’s sitting still,” Castellaw said.
The Osprey has had a long and sometimes troubled development process, including two deadly crashes, but Marine commanders said they had full confidence in the aircraft.
Ten Ospreys, made by Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter, a unit of Textron Inc, will deploy to Iraq’s western Anbar province in September for seven months, officers said.
Like the Black Hawk used by the Army, the Marine Corps’ Osprey strikes a dramatic, even intimidating form as it roars over the horizon. Landing in a clearing of trees at the Quantico Marine Corps base on Friday, gusts from two Ospreys sent dirt and blades of grass flying as far as 100 yards.
But unlike other traditional helicopters, including the Vietnam War-era CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters the Osprey will replace, the new aircraft lifts off the ground and escapes the range of small-arms fire at unmatched speed, officials said.
So far this year, six U.S. military helicopters have crashed and one made a hard landing in Iraq under enemy fire.
The Osprey flies twice as fast and has five times the range of other helicopters, according to the Marine Corps.
In a demonstration flight at Quantico, the aircraft was off the ground and out of small-arms range in less than a minute. Once airborne, its rotors shifted from helicopter to airplane position in 12 seconds, and the transition was so smooth that passengers unprepared for the Osprey’s next flight mode were jolted toward the back of the aircraft.
It can move from 110 knots to more than 200 knots as the aircraft shifts into airplane flight, said Lt. Col. Paul Rock, commander of the squadron headed to Iraq. It can hit speeds of nearly 350 knots, or more than 400 miles per hour.
Critics have raised questions about the maneuverability of the aircraft in some circumstances.
Pilots will face the same restrictions in the Osprey as they do in other helicopters and tactical adjustments will be implemented to avoid the risk, Castellaw said.
For example, Osprey pilots when in helicopter mode will have to avoid descending at a low air speed and high rate of descent, just as pilots of traditional helicopters.
“You don’t want to do that in a helicopter, and you do not want to do that in a tilt-rotor,” Castellaw said.
He said the Osprey has systems on board to warn pilots when they are descending from a high altitude with too much power in helicopter mode.
“This is a great day for our corps,” Marine Corps commandant James Conway said. “This deployment directly supports our corps’ number one priority -- the Marines and sailors in contact at the tip of the spear,” he said.