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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Program Insider: Special Ops CV-22B Crashes in Afghanistan, Killing Four

By Richard Whittle

Marines prepare to board three MV-22 Ospreys from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, MEB-Afghanistan for insertion into Marjah on Feb. 19, 2010. U.S. Marines/Lance Cpl. Samuel A. Nasso
A U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command CV-22B Osprey crashed at about 1:00 a.m. local time April 9 in Zabul province Afghanistan, killing a USAF pilot and an enlisted flight engineer, an Army Ranger and a civilian U.S. government employee. No cause for the first combat loss in the tiltrotor troop transport’s history and first Osprey crash since Dec. 11, 2000, had been announced as this issue of Rotor & Wing went to press. An industry source told Rotor & Wing as many as 16 others aboard survived, though some suffered serious injuries. The Air Force version of the V-22 can carry 18 passengers and a four-member crew.

The CV-22B was one of five deployed to Afghanistan in March by the Air Force 8th Special Operations Squadron, based at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Spokeswoman Lt. Lauren Johnson said the Air Force had seven operational Ospreys prior to the crash, plus five trainers and one test aircraft. The service plans to buy 50 CV-22Bs in all. The 8th SOS previously flew Ospreys on operations in Afghanistan last November.

The Air Force identified the deceased pilot as Maj. Randell D. Voas, 43, a CV-22 evaluator pilot who began his career as an Army chief warrant officer. Voas had flown MH-53 Pave Low helicopters and been a UH-1 Huey flight instructor. He had logged more than 160 combat flight hours. The other Air Force casualty was Senior Master Sgt. James B. Lackey, 45, a CV-22 evaluator flight engineer who had flown MH-53s for 14 years. Lackey received a Distinguished Flying Cross in 2002 for heroism in combat.

The soldier killed was Cpl. Michael Jankiewicz, 23, of the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. The identity and role of the civilian killed hadn’t been released prior to Rotor & Wing’s deadline.

The Taliban claimed to have shot the CV-22B down, but an Afghan provincial spokesman denied that. Industry sources said there was no evidence for the claim.

The V-22’s critics have long contended that the Osprey, built 50-50 by Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing, would be too vulnerable in combat. Prior to April 9, the Air Force had flown CV-22Bs more than 1,000 hours in combat zones and the Marine Corps had flown its MV-22B version of the Osprey more than 10,000 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. military lost 375 helicopters worldwide at a cost of 496 lives between October 2001—when the war in Afghanistan began—and September 2009, according to a Pentagon “Study on Rotorcraft Survivability” submitted to Congress last fall. Of the total, 227 helicopters crashed in combat zones at a cost of 364 lives. Hostile fire downed 19 percent of those aircraft.

The Marine Corps has been flying a dozen MV-22Bs in troop transport and resupply missions in Afghanistan since November. During a February teleconference with Rotor & Wing and three other publications, the Marine air commander there, Col. Kevin Vest, said the Osprey was his rotorcraft of choice for missions requiring speed and range and for dangerous daylight flights, when helicopters are most exposed to small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, the main threats in Afghanistan.

Vest said the Osprey’s anti-missile defensive gear, the tiltrotor’s ability to cruise in airplane mode above the range of small arms and RPGs, and its agility getting into and out of landing zones made the MV-22B his choice for daylight missions. Vest added that the Osprey’s fly-by-wire flight controls, which include a “hover coupler” to orient pilots in brownout landings, had allowed the MV-22B to land in zones dusty enough to force Marine helicopters to wave off.

When 1,500 Marines and Afghan army troops were airlifted into the Taliban stronghold of Marja, Afghanistan, the night of Feb. 13, Marine Corps CH-53D and 53E helicopters carried 600 of them and U.S. Army CH-47F and UH-60Ls the rest. But Vest said the Osprey was his “ace in the hole as I committed initial forces.” The tiltrotor’s superior range and roughly 250-knot cruising speed—better than twice as fast as Marine and Army helicopters—made it ideal for carrying a quick reaction force, Vest said.

No QRF was needed the night the operation began, and no Ospreys flew in the initial assault because Marja lies only 30 miles from the Marine base at Camp Leatherneck and adjacent Camp Bastion airfield, Vest said. Three days into the battle, though, Vest used three MV-22Bs to execute a nighttime insertion of 120 Marines and Afghan troops sent to block Taliban pushed out of Marja by 3rd Battalion/6th Marines. The Ospreys delivered those troops in two waves, Vest said.

A couple of days into the operation, Vest added, an MV-22B sent to Marja to pick up the bodies of a dozen Afghan civilians killed by a U.S. ground-launched rocket dodged AK-47 rounds and two rocket-propelled grenades insurgents fired at the Osprey as it departed the village. “The enemy’s shown that they can put an RPG into a helicopter, but the speed at which (the Osprey) approaches the zone,” he said, “really just froze the enemy, because they’re just not used to it.”

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