The Washington Post
The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Ospreyby Richard Whittle
WHEN THE MARINES decided to buy a helicopter-airplane hybrid “tiltrotor” called the V-22 Osprey, they saw it as their dream machine. The tiltrotor was the aviation equivalent of finding the Northwest Passage: an aircraft able to take off, land, and hover with the agility of a helicopter yet fly as fast and as far as an airplane. Many predicted it
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WHEN THE MARINES decided to buy a helicopter-airplane hybrid “tiltrotor” called the V-22 Osprey, they saw it as their dream machine. The tiltrotor was the aviation equivalent of finding the Northwest Passage: an aircraft able to take off, land, and hover with the agility of a helicopter yet fly as fast and as far as an airplane. Many predicted it would reshape civilian aviation. The Marines saw it as key to their very survival.
By 2000, the Osprey was nine years late and billions over budget, bedeviled by technological hurdles, business rivalries, and an epic political battle over whether to build it at all. Opponents called it one of the worst boondoggles in Pentagon history. The Marines were eager to put it into service anyway. Then two crashes killed twenty- three Marines. They still refused to abandon the Osprey, even after the Corps’ own proud reputation was tarnished by a national scandal over accusations that a commander had ordered subordinates to lie about the aircraft’s problems.
Based on in-depth research and hundreds of interviews, The Dream Machine recounts the Marines’ quarter-century struggle to get the Osprey into combat. Whittle takes the reader from the halls of the Pentagon and Congress to the war zone of Iraq, from the engineer’s drafting table to the cockpits of the civilian and Marine pilots who risked their lives flying the Osprey—and sometimes lost them. He reveals the methods, motives, and obsessions of those who designed, sold, bought, flew, and fought for the tiltrotor. These stories, including never before published eyewitness accounts of the crashes that made the Osprey notorious, not only chronicle an extraordinary chapter in Marine Corps history, but also provide a fascinating look at a machine that could still revolutionize air travel.
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“A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.”
—Death of a Salesman,by Arthur Miller, 1949
Where he was and what he was doing when he first heard the news is seared into Dick Spivey’s memory. The disaster took place in the desert near Marana, Arizona, at two minutes before eight o’clock in the evening, local time, on April 8, 2000. Spivey’s brain stores that data alongside November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001, in the lobe reserved for devastating events. “For me, that’s the same kind of thing,” Spivey explains in a native Georgia drawl seasoned with an acquired Texas twang.
When it happened, Spivey was 5,300 miles and seven time zones away from Marana, lying in bed in his room at the Thistle Hotel Victoria in central London as the sun rose. Barely awake, he was listening to, but not watching, a morning television news broadcast. The Thistle Victoria, a somewhat timeworn but convenient pile of stone and faux marble attached to the city’s throbbing Victoria Station rail terminal, is mostly an affordable place to flop for tourists. Spivey, a fifty-nine-year-old aeronautical engineer-turned-marketer for Bell Helicopter of Fort Worth, Texas, was there because the hotel was the site of an aviation conference that Monday. He and a U.S. Marine Corps general were to speak there about a peculiar aircraft Spivey had helped sell the Marines on two decades earlier. It had been the service’s top priority ever since.
The aircraft was the V-22 Osprey “tiltrotor,” called that because it tilts two giant rotors on its wingtips upward to take off and land and swivels them forward to fly fast. The tiltrotor was Bell’s solution to an engineering challenge that had tantalized inventors and engineers and industrialists and the military since the 1920s: how to build a vehicle able to take off, land, and hover with the agility of a helicopter yet fly as fast and far as an airplane. Spivey had had a hand in designing the tiltrotor in his engineering days. Since becoming a marketer in the 1970s, he had promoted it to anyone who would listen. But Dick Spivey was not just a salesman with a product, he was a salesman with a dream. Spivey expected the tiltrotor to change the way people fly as much as the jet engine had—and the jet engine had changed the world. That’s what Dick Spivey told people all the time, and that was what Dick Spivey believed.
By the spring of 2000, the Osprey was nine years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Its developers had been whipsawed between technological hurdles and political interference. They had struggled with manufacturing problems. They had been undermined by business rivalries and their own overly ambitious promises. They had been emotionally scarred and financially stung by an epic political battle in Washington over whether to build the Osprey at all. After they had won that fight, the Marine Corps had pressed relentlessly to get the Osprey into service. Now, at last, everything seemed to be on track. The Marines were practicing mock missions with the Osprey as a prelude to fielding it as a troop transport in 2001. The general with Spivey would tell the conference about that. Spivey planned to talk about an even more audacious tiltrotor he and others at Bell had been working on—a tiltrotor bigger than the military’s bulky C-130 Hercules cargo plane. The designers were calling it the Quad TiltRotor because instead of the Osprey’s two rotors it would have four, mounted on two wings instead of one. The theoretical behemoth would dwarf the V-22, carrying four times the troops and cargo that could fit in an Osprey. Spivey was going to tell the conference all the great things a bird like that could do for the military. If anybody asked, he would also gladly explain how the tiltrotor was not just going to change but revolutionize civilian air travel, too, solving the airport congestion problem by making it possible to fly without runways. In the future, he had no doubt, tiltrotors would carry civilian passengers from, say, the heart of London to the heart of Paris in less time than it took to get from Victoria Station to London Heathrow Airport by train or taxi. Spivey sometimes got so worked up at the prospects he found it hard to sleep at night.
That morning in London, though, as he lay there drowsily listening to the TV in his hotel room, Spivey heard a news item that jolted him awake. “They were talking about this jet that had crashed in the U.S. and killed nineteen people—a Marine Corps jet,” Spivey recalled. “I had this rush throughout my body thing, but then they called it a jet. I thought, ‘What Marine Corps jet do they have that will carry nineteen people?’ That made me feel better for a few minutes. But then this chill ran through me and I called the general.”
The general called headquarters in Washington, then rang Spivey back with awful news. The plane that had gone down near Marana a few hours earlier, killing its crew of four and fifteen Marine infantry riding in back, hadn’t been a jet. It had been an Osprey.
Paul J. Rock Jr., a square-jawed, red-haired, tightly wound Marine Corps pilot—radio call sign “Rocket”—was another who would never forget Marana. The “mishap aircraft,” in the dry terminology of military accident investigation reports, was one of four Ospreys taking part in a mock embassy evacuation—the very mission for which Spivey and other believers had long touted the tiltrotor as ideal. Rock, a young major at the time, was copiloting one of two Ospreys trailing two others as they flew to a tiny airfield near Marana, a desert town about twenty-five miles northwest of Tucson. A group of role players were waiting there to be “rescued.”
After the first two aircraft approached the airfield and tilted their rotors upward to land, a nightmare began. Without warning, the second Osprey snapped into a right roll and plowed into the ground with its belly up. It exploded in a fireball that lit the evening sky for miles. Rock saw the orange flames in his rearview mirror as his Osprey circled five miles away. Four of Rock’s squadron mates and fifteen other Marines riding in the back of the Osprey that went down were killed instantly.
Investigators attributed the crash to “human factors” and the Marines went ahead with their plans for the Osprey. Eight months later, though, Rock lost another four squadron mates when yet another Osprey went down in a boggy forest near their coastal North Carolina home base, New River Marine Corps Air Station. Pentagon officials, who had been expected to approve plans to build 360 Ospreys in all for the Marines, grounded the few already built.
Four days after the New River crash, Secretary of Defense William Cohen formed a commission to examine whether the tiltrotor—despite decades and billions spent developing it—might in fact be fatally flawed. The panel had barely started its work when a national scandal over the Osprey erupted. The commander of the Osprey training squadron at New River was accused of telling his mechanics to lie about how frequently the aircraft couldn’t fly because of mechanical problems. The Defense Department opened a criminal investigation.
The crashes, the grounding, and the maintenance scandal disheartened the Osprey pilots at New River. All pilots love to fly. Most pilots live to fly. For the next two years, though, Marine pilots were forbidden to take an Osprey off the ground—or even sit in one and crank the engines. Headquarters Marine Corps was afraid something new might go wrong.
Reduced to reviewing and revising maintenance manuals, Rock and other Osprey pilots began to fear they might never fly the tiltrotor again—might even be tainted by having flown it at all. Critics were calling the Osprey a boondoggle and a death trap, a “widow-maker.” They said the Marines were foolhardy at best and delusional at worst for wasting so many taxpayer dollars and so many promising lives on such a Rube Goldberg contraption. The Osprey’s foes urged the Pentagon and Congress to destroy the beast before it killed again.
Rock was a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who planned to make the military his life’s work. He had joined the Osprey program in 1997 full of zest, certain he was at the cutting edge of Marine Corps aviation. He had been proud to fly the most prized aircraft in the Marine Corps stable, an innovative piece of technology expected to revolutionize the way his service fought wars. Yet, after the crashes and the grounding, after attending the funerals of friends and being interrogated about the maintenance scandal by Defense Department investigators, after watching nearly every other pilot in the Osprey squadron transfer out, Rock was demoralized. He thought of asking for a transfer, maybe even resigning his commission.
In 2001, like the Ospreys in the Arizona desert and the North Carolina woods, Paul Rock’s career and Dick Spivey’s dreams lay in ashes.
In October 2007, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Rock led the first squadron of V-22 Ospreys ever to fly actual military operations into Iraq, where a U.S.-led invasion four years earlier had ignited ethnic and religious blood feuds and an insurgency that had taken thousands of lives. By then, the bitter debate over how the war had begun was largely over. It was hard to remember why the war’s sponsors had thought it would be so easy, and so cheap in dollars and lives, to change the world.
The war in Iraq was a fitting stage for the Osprey’s combat debut—a project sold for a mission once deemed existential, a venture begun under the influence of a dream that soon became a nightmare. The Osprey and its first war had much in common.
© 2010 Richard Whittle
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Meet the Author
Richard Whittle has written about the military and aviation for more than three decades, including twenty-two years on the Pentagon beat for the Dallas Morning News.
Kevin Foley has over thirty years' experience in radio and television broadcasting, commercial voice-overs, and audiobook narration. He has recorded over one hundred and fifty audiobooks.
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