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Cuts through the hype and the hysteria
on April 25, 2010
Richard Whittle began covering the V-22 Osprey program in 1984 as the Pentagon correspondent for The Dallas Morning News. Based on hundreds of interviews, extensive research, first hand flights, and an "embedding" on the first Osprey combat tour in Iraq, Whittle's book, The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey provides impressive insight into the internal and external politics of fielding the Marine Corps' "Number one aviation priority."
If you are looking for a technical discussion of the V-22, or a critical assessment of its combat capabilities, or cost-benefit analyses to a conventional helicopter, this book is not for you. Rather, this book is for members of the general public who automatically associate words like "death trap" and "widow maker" with the Osprey.
Neither unrealistically extolling the aircraft's virtues nor carping on capabilities for which it was never designed, the story focuses on the struggles to convince the Army, Navy and Marine Corps that tiltrotor technology was mature enough for development, to design an aircraft to meet the overly-constrained JVX government specification, to maintain support and funding within the Department of Defense and Congress for three decades, and to survive the tragic crashes in 1992 and 2000. Indeed, Whittle has written the first in-depth look at the history of the Osprey that tries to cut through the hype and the hysteria that has surrounded the V-22 for over a quarter century.
Written in a journalistic style, the book covers much of the history of the development of the aircraft, and follows the careers of several key individuals. As a result, although there are hundreds of individuals mentioned at Bell and Boeing, in the Defense Department, Congress, etc, the reader gets a slice - rather than a comprehensive view - of the development challenges. The book reads well, despite a few editing shortfalls, and through Whittle's engaging writing style, the book is hard to put down.
Despite the seemingly pejorative title, Whittle's story is largely a positive one of the trials, tribulations, tragedies and triumphs of the Osprey. Webster's gives the definition of `notorious' as "generally known and talked of; especially widely and unfavorably known." An unfavorable view of the tiltrotor is still probably the "conventional wisdom" among the American public, helped by "60 Minutes" and Mark Thompson's appallingly misguided October 2007 TIME magazine article, "V-22 Osprey: A Flying Shame" - perhaps the low point of journalistic coverage of the Osprey. Whittle's book may serve as a counterbalance, providing enough factual information on the Osprey for readers to draw their own conclusions on the aircraft. An alternative title might have been "Chasing a Dream: The V-22 and How It Got That Way." In fact, Whittle seems to go out of his way trying to incorporate the views of some critics, but in the end, it was a bit unconvincing for me, because the preponderance of the book refuted their arguments.
The retrospective of the entire Osprey development history provides some interesting insights - perhaps unintended by Whittle. For instance, the cancellation of the program by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney - and the fits and starts of trying to continue the program through Congressional actions - are implicated in the July 1992 crash that killed seven at Quantico Marine Corps Base, and perhaps even lead to rushed developmental testing and the April 2000 crash that killed 19 at Marana. Cheney's cancellations certainly added years and hundreds of millions of dollars to the development; it wasn't until after the crashes that pauses could be made in the program to fix larger problems. Secretary of the Navy John Lehman's insistence on a Firm Fixed Price bid for Full Scale Development and the 50/50 partnership between Bell and Boeing (with neither company in charge) were also root causes of development troubles.
The book also highlights Representative Weldon's role in leading the defense of the Osprey in the Congress, where he formed the "Tilt-Rotor Technology Coalition." After the tragedy of the 1992 crash, Weldon testified that "in the past three years alone we have had nine accidents with the existing medium lift aircraft for the Marine Corps, most recently in March, where fourteen young Marines were killed when the CH-46 helicopter they were flying in went down."
Since its return to flight in 2002, the Osprey has flown well over 70,000 hours, including over 11,000 hours in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March 2007, General James Conway, Commandant of the US Marine Corps, in discussing the Osprey's first deployment into combat is quoted as saying, "I'll tell you, there's going to be a crash. That's what airplanes do over time. We're going to have to accept that when it happens." The first combat loss of the Osprey occurred on April 8, 2010 (US time) - 10 years to the day from the crash in Marana - an Air Force CV-22 crashed in southern Afghanistan. The Dream Machine is dedicated to those "who lost their lives developing the V-22 Osprey, and to their loved ones and friends."