Editor’s Note: This article was part of a larger piece assessing the V-280 Valor’s value for the U.S. Army.
On December 5, the Army announced its selection of Bell’s tilt-rotor V-280 Valor as its replacement for the legendary (but aging) UH-60 Black Hawk, and almost immediately, we received a number of questions about the V-22 Osprey’s reputation for being an unsafe platform and how that could affect the V-280’s performance.
These questions make some sense. After all, the V-22 program has certainly seen a number of high-profile incidents leading to the deaths of service members, dating all the way back to the early 1990s. But the truth is, the Osprey has proven itself to be a rather safe and reliable platform despite its setbacks.
The first fatalities associated with the Osprey were in July of 1992 when seven Marines were killed. Eight years later, another Osprey full of Marines would go down, killing 19. In all, 51 service members have died in Osprey crashes throughout the program’s lifetime, with the most recent coming in June of this year when an Osprey belonging to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed in California, killing five.
Every service member lost in training or combat is a tragedy, but in order to determine whether the V-280 is truly an unsafe replacement for the UH-60, it’s important to view these tragic incidents through an admittedly difficult-to-muster lens of objectivity.
Fatalities are an unfortunate fact of life in military aviation regardless of platform, and while there’s a valid argument to be made that many of these deaths could have been avoided through better training or maintenance practices, the Osprey certainly isn’t alone in its stomach-churning body count.
Between 2013 and December 2020, 224 service members died in over 6,000 separate DoD aviation accidents that destroyed 186 aircraft and caused around $10 billion worth of damage.
And despite the Osprey’s negative reputation, you won’t find its incident record as a dangerous outlier in service-wide or branch-specific data. As Marine Maj. Jorge Hernandez, spokesman for Marine aviation, explained to the Military Times in a July e-mail, the Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey has a lower mishap rate per 100,000 flight hours than the Harrier, Super Hornet, F-35B, or CH-53E Super Stallion.
“The 10-year average mishap rate for MV-22′s is 3.16 per 100,000 flight hours,” Hernandez wrote on July 8.
In the 33 years since the Osprey started flying, 51 service members have died in crashes. In the first 33 years the H-60 Black Hawk flew, more than 180 American service members and civilians died in non-combat-related crashes according to the list tallied by ArmyAirCrews.com. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the Black Hawk existed in higher volume than the Osprey during this time and I was unable to find accurate data on the UH-60’s mishap rate per 100,000 flight hours early in its lifespan. I was, however, able to confirm that Black Hawk, like most programs, had its own series of early setback.
In April of 1985, six years after entering service, the Army’s fleet of some 630 UH-60s was grounded pending investigations into 37 deaths across 23 incidents. Three years later, that fleet had grown to 970, but an additional eight incidents brought the death toll up to 65. To be clear, it seems likely that the Black Hawk may have still had a better mishap rate than the Osprey during this time — as the Army pointed out in March of 1988, it remained the “safest helicopter the Army had ever flown” despite these fatalities. Helicopter technology at this point was, to be fair, quite a bit more mature than tilt-rotor platforms were when the Osprey entered service.
The point isn’t to suggest that the Osprey is safer than the Black Hawk, but rather just to point out how these sorts of tragedies are, to some extent, inherent to the danger of military aviation.
There are, however, a few factors that play into the Osprey’s perception as unsafe. The first may be recency bias, as the V-22 only entered service in 2007, compared to the decade-spanning careers of its peers. Aircraft, like people, often only get one chance at a first impression, and the Osprey’s early crashes certainly left their mark.
The second tragic variable to consider is the Osprey’s utilitarian role as the Marine Corps’ workhorse troop transport. When a fighter jet crashes, you might see one or two fatalities, but when an aircraft carrying two dozen Marines goes down, the death toll can be much higher. As a result, the Marine Corps’ Hornets and Super Hornets may go down at more than twice the rate of the Osprey, but this results in fewer fatalities.
To be clear, the Osprey does have a much higher number of fatal mishaps than the H-60 series of helicopters, but it’s important to remember that the H-60 series has been flying for nearly 50 years.
In short, the tilt-rotor Osprey has seen some tragic incidents in its service life, but it’s certainly not the systemically unsafe platform many seem to think it is.
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Tom Johnson says
A HUGE improvement to the Osprey would be putting Hartzell Q-tip props on the bird. 10-15% increase in performance, 35% reduction in rotor noise. Marines aren’t interested. Hot, leaky, noisy, over weight, under performing, it needs all the help it can get.
Charles Miller says
Helicopters as well as and tilt-rotor craft, while operating in helicopter mode, are affected by the ground effect. While either type of craft is hovering close to ground, air pressure builds beneath, and that provides the rotors with additional lift. In the case of tilt-rotor craft, the down wash from both rotors merges and ground effect provides lift to both rotors. However, if a rotor craft is not level and one rotor is closer to the ground than the other, then very directional down wash from the low rotor supports the opposite rotor more. This causes the craft to lean and drift in the direction of the lower rotor. With tilt-rotor craft, the engines, gear boxes, and rotors are mounted near the end of the wings. That amount of weight mounted so far from the center of gravity makes the craft slow to respond to corrective action once the craft begins to lean.
It is interesting to watch videos of Ospreys landing on tarmac. Often, they drift several yards from side to side during the final decent phase. As a result, naval Osprey landings involve two stages. First the craft hovers beside the vessel with its wingspan pointed in the direction of travel of the vessel. When everything seems stable, the Osprey makes a short dash forward and stops just above the flight deck. Then it descends and quickly touches down, reducing the tendency to lean and drift to either side.
The problem with the “Osprey dash” is that while the craft is over the ocean, its height above the waves produces only a small ground effect. But as soon as a rotor tip passes over the edge of the deck, the ground effect increases dramatically, and again, unevenly. This causes a sudden lift imbalance from the front to the back of the craft. And if the craft isn’t parallel to the edge of the deck, additional imbalances occur. The Osprey avionic control system helps correct for this situation by issuing a series of calculated cyclic and collective pitch commands to the rotors. Through all of this, the pilot crosses his fingers and gingerly drives the craft forward. Unfortunately, the “Osprey dash” sometimes does not go well.
The fact that Ospreys are operated successfully from a variety of Naval vessels around the world is testimony to pilot training, dedication, skill, and intelligence. But now you know for real why Ospreys are being gradually phased out by the Navy.
The Army’s new tilt-rotor will have many of the same stability problems as the Osprey, but that will not significantly impact land operations. After all, the Army has been flying Chinooks for a long time, and Chinooks drift front to back during landings because of their tandem rotor design. So the Army should know what it is getting into. Right?
Two points of clarification:
1. Your description of the “Osprey dash” is identical to what every naval helicopter in the world does for landing onboard small or large decks; no difference. Naval helicopters and tilt-rotors are designed to have sufficient “rotor control power” to address any differences in rotor lift; whether across the rotor disc of a helicopter or across a tandem rotor/tilt-rotor aircraft. You are correct that proper pilot training, augmented by outstanding automatic flight control systems, are the key to safe landings, that is why the landing accident rates are so low. There are multiple YouTube videos showing CH-46 (tandem rotor) and CH-53 (large diameter rotor) helicopter landing accidents which are the result of poor piloting and not anything to do with ground effect conditions.
2. The U.S.M.C., U.S.A.F and the U.S.N. are not gradually phasing the Osprey out of service. The U.S.M.C. and U.S.A.F. plan to operate V-22s well into the 2050’s, and the U.S.N. is in the middle of receiving 48 brand new CMV-22s for carrier on-board delivery duty.
Forbes has an excellent article about this at:
Finally, the U.S. Army selection of the V-280 which exceeded all of the Army’s FLRAA requirements, including level one handling qualities in both hover and forward flight, was an outstanding choice. They know exactly what they are getting; an outstanding aircraft with the range, speed, and payload our war-fighters need to prevail in future conflicts.
Charles Miller says
Thank you for taking time to add balanced and nuanced content to the thread.
The selection and deployment of unique aircraft like the V-22 or the V-280 must be made while considering their potential roles in many complex combat scenarios, both current and future. Of course, there is no perfect solution.
geroge pappas says
It cannot autorotate and it has no guns…and is limited to a 20 angle of bank and is loud. Next to the Harrier, a true widow maker. A classic over schedule over cost program to enrich contractors at the expenae Of USMC lives and treasure. Even our enemies won’t develop one, nor will our allies buy any. A USMC HUEY Pilot
I guess the facts and the data presented doesn’t matter much to some if their minds are closed. However, the facts and data do matter to people who have to design, test, field and operate cutting edge technology to ensure our military can win the next war. The V-22 provides capabilities no helicopter could ever even approach, and those capabilities are sorely needed in the Pacific particularly right now. The U.S. is fortunate to have this aircraft in its inventory, and the Japanese military will make good use of them as well.
Aviation is an inherently dangerous occupation; not an opinion, just fact. The rule needs to be to minimize the cost in people and material to move technology forward, because the cost of not moving forward will be even greater. History has proven this time and again, and it behooves people to study and learn from history.
I believe that “The facts” have been manipulated. And I assert that this is not a paranoid conspiracy. It was reported some years back the dod was declaring victory with the Osprey and several incidences of mishaps being under-reported were reported on. You have to go to archives of the library to recall these reports but a person may check the wiki page of the v22 and its history to get a hint. It may have improved but it’s still flawed. A turkey. I actually hope the v280 is better but don’t believe the hype the lobbyist have been pushing.
The V-22 can autorotate. However, because of constraints put on the design by the Government, it does it poorly. The survivability requirement (which was new compared to its predecessors) was met through gliding to a short landing, something it does far better than any helicopter. Plus, have you looked at the autorotation characteristics of other large helicopters? In fact, have you looked at the autorotation characteristics of helicopters in general? The Huey ‘s characteristics were great, but its Army replacement doesn’t do as well but Army still bought thousands. There’s a reason why in training or testing autorotations aren’t done all the way to the ground. In many cases, even if the autorotation is “successful” the rotorcraft suffers major damage.
Rem,ember Osprey is the CH-46 replacement, not the Cobra replacement. How many transport helicopters have forward firing guns? The rotating gun was dropped because the user community felt it wasn’t worth the weight penalty