One of the greatest advantages of the Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor over existing aircraft is one that many critics might dismiss as irrelevant: because it can tilt its rotors to provide forward propulsion, the Osprey can taxi, unlike conventional choppers, which have to be dragged around the flight decks of amphibious ships. ”It seems a minor point,” admits Colonel Glenn Walters, one of the Marines’ most experienced V-22 pilots. But he says that taxiing translates into faster and more flexible launches of larger groups of aircraft.
Marine Corps air assaults are among the most delicate and complicated of military operations due the variety and limitations of the aircraft involved and because amphibs are pretty small, as far as runways go. ”There’s only a certain amount of territory available in terms of the deck: we normally use just six spots” for helicopters, Walters explains. And since choppers can’t maneuver themselves into these spots, tractors must move them into position — and in the right order.
Typically the armed AH-1W Cobras and the scout UH-1N Hueys take off first. They orbit the amphibious ship while the cargo choppers — the CH-53E Super Stallions — are carefully towed into place then launched. Next come the troop carrier CH-46E Sea Knights. By the time the -46s are in the air, the short-range Cobras and Hueys are out of gas, so they have to land, get refueled then take off again to rejoin the transports, which by this point have all burned off much of their own gas. “For 35 years, we’ve been doing this intricate dance that’s got no room for error.” Any screwup might scrub the entire assault.
The Osprey changes all that. Pilots can maneuver their own V-22s around the deck, lining up nose-to-tail, making better use of limited space — and faster. “During operational evaluation [of the V-22], even though we had only six spots, we took off ten aircraft,” Walters recalls. ”You line ‘em up and sling ’em off with a short roll.”
Says Walters, “The ability to maneuver an aircraft around on its own power is a huge advantage.” Plus, the V-22′s greater endurance owing to its large fuel tanks (“You can stuff more gas in that thing than the guys in the cockpit can stand!”) means more flexibility for planners trying to piece together the elements of an air assault. The Ospreys can take off early and orbit, potentially for hours, while the rest of the aircraft await their turns with the tractors.