Farther, faster, stronger; Osprey enhances battlefield capabilities

8 Jan 2010 | Cpl. Aubry Buzek

The 40-year legacy of the CH-46 “Sea Knight” is built on stories of valor and heroism from Marines in combat missions around the world, but that era is coming to a close as the Marine Corps replaces the Sea Knight with it’s newest bird of prey, the MV-22 “Osprey.”

In 2006, the Marine Corps became the first service to host an operational MV-22 Osprey squadron. Now almost four years later, the Marine Corps has six operating or currently transitioning squadrons on the East Coast, and is in the process of transitioning six on the West Coast.

The replacement of the 40-year-old CH-46 Sea Knight doesn’t come cheap, with a price tag of roughly 100 million dollars per bird, but the Osprey’s capabilities provide enhanced mission capabilities and more safety than the CH-46.

“The [advantage is the] capabilities we bring to the battlefield. It’s newer, we’re faster, we go farther and we can stay longer,” said Maj. Richard McGahhey, a Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161 Osprey pilot. “All of the capabilities of the 46 ... It expands upon them.”

One of the important safety features of the Osprey is a reduced heat signature. Air-to-air heat seeking missiles will have a harder time tracking the Osprey because of the significant reduction in the amount of detectable heat from the aircraft. In addition to lower heat detection, the aircraft has a radar warning receiver, a ballistically tolerant airframe to reduce structural damage and an M240 Golf machine gun mounted on the back ramp.

Another vital part of mission capability for military aircraft, especially in a combat zone, is fuel efficiency. The CH-46 has low fuel endurance and must be refueled approximately every 90 to 100 minutes, which can be dangerous in a tactical environment. The Osprey has an increased fuel capacity, and according to Sgt. Darin Levesque, a crew chief who has deployed with both the CH-46 and the Osprey, the aircraft has proven itself in battle.

“It’s two different worlds,” said Levesque. “It’s a completely different aircraft. It goes twice as far so you can get Marines where they need to be -- faster.”

The increased fuel capacity means the Osprey can go longer and farther than the CH-46, and it also provides an increased payload. The CH-46 current internal and external weight restrictions are approximately 22,000 pounds and 12 combat equipped troops. The Osprey offers significant advantage in that it can carry over 20,000 pounds and 24 combat equipped troops, at twice the speed of the CH-46.

The high-speed, high-flight capabilities of the aircraft are made possible by its ability to convert to a turboprop airplane. Once airborne, the Osprey can convert to a turboprop airplane and fly more than 400 mph and reach altitudes of almost 25,000 feet, which is significantly greater than the CH-46.

In a mission where a pilot is navigating great distances in unfamiliar areas of the world, often in poor weather or at night, pilots must be able to rely on certain equipment in the cockpit to safely transport troops or lift external cargo. Upgraded navigation and communication systems and a cockpit lighting system that is compatible with night vision goggles greatly enhance the safety and success of medium lift missions.

Although the capabilities of the Osprey will significantly increase the mission capabilities and success of medium lift missions, according to Lt. Col. Evan LeBlanc, the commanding officer of VMM-161 -- one thing hasn’t changed.

“The things that make the Marine Corps strong isn’t the aircraft. It’s the Marines,” said LeBlanc.

Although the first VMM-161 Osprey landed at MCAS Miramar in early December, the squadron expects 11 more to complete the 19-month transition.