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    Japan
     Jul 10, 2012


Is the Osprey safe?
By Kosuke Takahashi

"The osprey stays on deserted shores because it fears human beings," says a passage from Hojoki, one of Japan's most acclaimed essays written by poet Kamo no Chomei in 1212.

Ironically, 800 years later in modern Japan, the "osprey" is about to swoop on densely inhabited areas, striking fear in the hearts of the local people. Protests over the planned deployment of the contentious Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft are growing in Okinawa prefecture and elsewhere in Japan due to what they say is the aircraft's poor safety record following a series of accidents overseas.

Local governments and residents are calling for the cancellation of the basing of MV-22 Ospreys in their communities on safety

 

grounds. Okinawans plan to hold the largest rally yet against the scheduled deployment of the aircraft at the US Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station on August 5.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) is currently pushing ahead with plans to station the Ospreys first at the Marine Corps' Iwakuni Air Station in Yamaguchi prefecture in late July for trial flights, then deploying them to the Futenma Air Station later on. This is part of the Marine Corps' plan to replace its aging 24 CH-46 helicopters with 24 MV-22 Ospreys at Futenma in coming two years.

The Osprey is the hybrid of a helicopter and fixed-wing airplane; it is a fixed-wing plane that climbs and hovers like a helicopter, while its giant propellers can be rotated forward and to fly like an airplane. It's the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) transport combo-aircraft. The name of the Osprey came from the bird of prey, which can descend almost vertically, just like the aircraft. It can carry out low-altitude flight such as above mountainous areas, which helps reduce the risk of an aircraft exposing itself to enemy radar. This in-turn leads to a greater mission success rate.

The Pentagon has reiterated that the Osprey is "a highly capable, reliable and safe aircraft". But we just saw the second crash of an Osprey in three months in Florida, raising renewed questions over its safety

"As an airplane it's quite safe," Arthur Rex Rivolo, an expert on rotorcraft who runs an aerospace corporation in Virginia of the US, said in recent email interviews with Asia Times Online. "But its helicopter role is always very precarious. The shortcomings of the V-22 have to do with the design of the aircraft. The biggest concern over the aircraft is that it has smaller rotors. As a helicopter, that is working very hard to stay in the air."

Rivolo served as the principal analyst for the MV-22 and CV-22 at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a nonprofit organization paid to do independent research for the Pentagon, from June 1992 to March 2009. He was a pilot fir six years at the US Air Force and 22 years at the Air National Guard. He testified before the House of Representatives in June 2009 on the inability of the MV-22 Osprey to safely autorotate - that is, to conduct an emergency power-off landing by rotating its propellers with the help of the wind, even after all engines become inoperative.

"The aircraft is unable to autorotate," Rivolo said.

Rivolo pointed out the chances of the Osprey's two engines failing in peacetime are very rare, "but if both engines fail, that would be a very serious problem of the V-22. The US military has decided that a very, very small risk is worth the utility of the aircraft. In a rare occurrence of all engines' failure, we will lose some people. And the military thought that's acceptable."

Japanese Defense Minister Morimoto on Monday insisted in the Diet (parliament) that the Osprey has an autorotation function but that the function has not been tested.

History of accidents
The V-22 Osprey was once called the "widow-maker" due to a series of accidents during its development. The Marine Corps' version, the MV-22, got off to a rocky start with the deaths of seven marines during testing in 1992; 23 Marines died in two crashes of the MV-22 Ospreys in 2000 alone. A US Air Force version of the tilt-rotor aircraft, the special mission CV-22, crashed in Afghanistan in April 2010, killing four people. A total of 36 people have died in V-22s since the plane began flying.

Two recent V-22 accidents have again raised safety concerns. An MV-22 crashed in April in Morocco, killing two marines, and in June, an Air Force CV-22 Osprey crashed in Florida, injuring five crewmembers.

Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said at a press conference on June 26 that the two recent crashes occurred during the rotating of its engine nacelle (engine cover), which is unique to V-22s. Morimoto said both crashes occurred while the nacelles were rotating and the aircraft was converting from vertical to conventional flight.

In the Morocco accident, the pilot was moving its rotors from an upright to forward position at the time of the crash. Japanese defense officials suggested the pilot had tilted the aircraft forward in a strong tail wind.

The Florida crash occurred while the rotors were tilted halfway forwards. The pilot was a veteran with over 2,572 hours of flight experience, including 554 hours on MV-22s and CV-22s.

"The Morocco accident is the classic of [the] V-22," Rivolo said. "The pilot has a little button on his controls that moves nacelles. If you move them a little bit too far forward, you crash. The pilot can crash the aircraft by touching the switch. This is unique to the V-22."

Japanese defense chief Morimoto has continued to stress the safety of the aircraft by repeatedly saying, "The US military continues to operate the aircraft despite those incidents. This suggests there were no systemic problems but there were some operational problems."

The Pentagon has stressed that the MV-22 Osprey has an excellent safety record, and has surpassed 115,000 flight hours. It said about one third of the total hours were flown during the past two years.

"It's important to remember that the MV-22 has a very good safety record over the past 10 years," an active pilot at the US Air Force told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity. "There has been a lot of focus by the Japanese media on the recent crashes, but prior to the April crash, it had been 12 years since an MV-22 had a 'class A' mishap." If the aircraft damage equals or is greater than $2 million, it is considered "class A".

"Like other rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, if the V-22 is flown in accordance with established regulations and employed by trained pilots who adjust for situations using their best judgment, the V-22 is a safe aircraft."

The Pentagon has also dismissed the aircraft's safety concerns. It stressed that including the mishap in April 2012 in Morocco, since the Marine Corps resumed flight operations in October 2003, the MV-22B has demonstrated a safety record that is consistently better than the US Marine Corp (USMC) averages. The "class A" mishap rate for each of the identified aircraft is as follows.

MV-22: 1.93 ;
CH-46: 1.11;
CH-53E: 2.35;
CH-53D: 4.51;
AV-8B: 6.76
ALL USMC: 2.45

These rates are determined by the number of mishaps over a period of 100,000 flight hours. The rate of MV-22 Class A mishaps is higher than that of ageing CH-46, but is the second-lowest among the five aircraft and lower than the average.

However, the aircraft's record is worse if class B and C mishaps are included. A class B has a property damage value of between $500,000 and $2 million, class C is between $50,000 and $500,000.

There were 30 Osprey accidents of all classes between November 2006 and December 2011, according to Ryukyu Shimpo, one of the two major Okinawan newspapers. During the same period, the CH-46 had 17 accidents, while the CH-53 had 34 and the AV-8B had 38, the newspaper reported on July 8, citing the USMC's data.

The Wired website on June 21 said, "The Marines, who tout the Osprey as their 'safest tactical rotorcraft,' have used semantic games and fudged statistics to obscure the V-22's true safety record." It had reported in October 2011 that the Marines and the Naval Safety Center didn't count at least four serious flying accidents as Class A flight mishaps.

The other safety concern over the Osprey comes from the fact that the accident rate of CV-22 stays at 13.47, much more than for the MV-22. Japanese officials said this is because the flight hours of all of the 24 CV-22s, which the Air Force currently holds, stayed at 22,266 hours as of June 15. Since those flight hours are less than 100,000, they said the rate is skewed. They also pointed out that CV-22s are used for special operations under fiercer conditions, not like MV-22s.

Wired said, "But the Air Force has a history of blaming people even when its warplanes malfunction." For example, Brig Gen Donald Harvel, the lead investigator on a CV-22 crash in Afghanistan in 2010, was pressured to blame the pilots as he initially attributed the incident in part to engine failure.

"There was absolutely a lot of pressure to change my report," Air Force Times quoted Harvel as saying in January 2011. "My heart and brain said it was not pilot error. I stuck with what I thought was the truth."

"Harvel said Air Force Special Operations Command wanted him to cite the cause of the crash as pilot error because AFSOC didn't want old doubts stirred up about the safety of the Osprey program," Air Force Times reported.

The bottom line: the Osprey may be safe as the Marines have touted, but it sometimes causes accidents as often happen with every other aircraft by nature. One fatal crash at Futenma, which is surrounded by more than 100 schools, hospitals and shops, could trigger very strong anti-US sentiment in Okinawa. This could severely damage the presence of other US bases such as the Kadena airbase. The US cannot be too careful when the US deploys the controversial aircraft out there.

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia Times Online, he also writes for IHS Jane's Defence Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. His twitter is @TakahashiKosuke

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





US Marines eye Japan as a training yard (Jun 23, '12)

Osprey a new tinderbox on Okinawa (Jun 12, '12)


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