ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq | After a troubled history, the V-22 Osprey - half-helicopter, half-plane - has been ferrying troops and equipment across Iraq for a little more than a year without a major incident.
Critics say the Osprey, which was designed to replace transport helicopters, lacks firepower for defense in heavy combat.
However, pilots say the Osprey makes up for that in speed, which one of them says can take the plane “like a bat out of hell” to altitudes safe from small-arms fire.
Since arriving at this sprawling desert base in western Iraq, a dozen Ospreys have been ferrying troops and equipment at forward operating bases. One even carried Sen. Barack Obama during his tour of Iraq earlier this year.
Only on a handful of occasions has the aircraft faced any serious enemy fire.
Military officials say this is partly a result of the changing nature of the war in Iraq as well as the advantages the high-flying Osprey has over the Vietnam-era Sea Knight helicopter it eventually will replace. The Osprey also avoids day flights into Baghdad or other tasks that entail excessive risk.
“It’s not the same World War II tactics that we used to deal with, or even Vietnam tactics,” said Maj. Paul Kopacz, who led two Ospreys on a recent mission to Fallujah. “We have not been battle-tested because we aren’t going guns blazing into hot zones. Our nation is now too sensitive to the loss of soldiers to let that happen.”
The military calls the Osprey a “tilt-rotor” aircraft because it takes off with its rotors set vertically like a helicopter and glides in the air with them thrust forward as on an airplane. The shift requires just a pull of the lever by the pilot.
The aircraft, which took more than two decades to develop, has been plagued by a series of technical failures and deadly crashes - including a pair in quick succession in 2000 that killed 23 Marines and nearly scuttled the entire project.
Some skeptics have attacked the design of the plane because they think it is too slow in descent, lacks maneuverability, kicks up too much dust and should have been delayed until designers mastered the idea of “autorotation” - which would keep the rotors spinning even if both engines were taken out.
Another issue has been the lack of firepower on the Osprey, which does not include a mounted gun on the front as once envisaged - although the Marines have placed a machine gun at the rear.
There also are the aircraft’s soaring costs, which have pushed the bill to more than $100 million per unit, including research and development expenses.
Still, it has won wide support from the Marines flying the machine in Iraq since September 2007, even among those with long experience as pilots of the CH-46 Sea Knight. The pilots say problems experienced so far have been caused by desert dust and heat, mostly related to avionics and nothing that has overly confounded technicians.
“I used to fly the CH-46, and we couldn’t do nearly what we do now in terms of weight, cargo, distance or speed,” said Lt. Col. Christopher Seymour, commanding officer of what is now the third Osprey squadron at Asad Air Base, a complex in the desert of western Iraq that houses 10,000 U.S. service members.
Col. Seymour and the other pilots at Asad say they have noticed the Osprey’s advantages most. It can travel twice as fast as the Sea Knight and three times farther; is equipped with radar, lasers and a missile-defense system; and soars at altitudes far above its 39-year-old predecessor.
“It’s a gorilla. The ability to accelerate to speeds is so strong,” Col. Seymour said, adding that the Osprey’s benefits will become even more evident as the military continues to move away from ground convoys, which face roadside bombs and ambushes. “Like a bat out of hell, you’re at altitudes safe from small-arms fire.”
The Osprey is certainly an awesome sight. In helicopter mode, its twin nacelles point downward as if they were pistols in a holster. At night, its neon-tipped rotors sparkle like emeralds.
During a mission last week, on which an Associated Press reporter and photographer accompanied Marines, the only problem involved its global positioning system.
However, Maj. Andreas Lavato, one of the pilots, said the aircraft is built with so many backup systems - what the Marines call “redundancies” - that there are no concerns over engine or computer problems.
One engine can power both propellers at a somewhat lower speed, he said as the aircraft traveled at 280 mph about 9,500 feet above Anbar province in western Iraq. Each vital computer system has at least two backups.
“I’m an old helicopter guy myself, and I really didn’t feel confident flying with this thing until about 70 hours,” said Maj. Lavato, 36, who piloted the Sea Knight for a decade. “That’s with the technology, because the flying is really easy. It didn’t really take long to fall in love with this and realize its capabilities.”
He conceded that the Osprey’s lack of firepower - it has only a 7.62 mm machine gun at its rear, one fewer weapon than the Sea Knight - was part of the cause of his initial skepticism.
Still, he insisted that speed and elevation were more important, as the Ospreys largely are avoiding descents into “hot zones” or violent areas unprepared by aircraft more geared for attack.
“Nobody sees us, and you have to see something to shoot it,” Maj. Lavato said. “If I’m coming into a situation, I can just leave and get from 0 to 200 knots in about 10 seconds. I’m just gone.”
Maj. Kopacz, meanwhile, rejected the idea that the multibillion-dollar Osprey project was being shielded from the real fight to protect its record.
“We are flying into every zone out here - they are just not hot when we land,” he said. “Is that because we are so quiet coming in? Is it because we’re not low and slow?”
Maj. Kopacz said people can hear a helicopter from 10 miles away.
“You can’t hear us until two miles away,” he said, “and we’re coming fast.”