Osprey Readies for West Coast Deployment

With the MV-22B, the VMM-161 Greyhawks have moved into the future. Skip Robinson Photo
With the MV-22B, the VMM-161 Greyhawks have moved into the future. Skip Robinson Photo

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After many years of development, testing and trials, and East Coast squadron deployments, the United States Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey is readying for it first West Coast deployment.
In October 2009, one of the oldest helicopter squadrons in the Marine Corps, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 (HMM-161), stationed at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar, Calif., became the first West Coast squadron to transition from the Boeing CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter to the Bell-Boeing MV-22B Osprey. At the same time, the squadron changed its designation to VMM-161, or Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 161. After flying the CH-46E Sea Knight series of helicopters since the 1960s, it was time for the Greyhawks to move into the future. 
The new squadron was initially stood up by senior Marine Corps officers with previous MV-22 experience. During this time, eight HMM-161 CH-46E pilots were selected for initial West Coast training. The training included MV-22B flight simulator sessions prior to the group of pilots being sent to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204, the fleet replacement (training) squadron at MCAS New River, N.C. The first MV-22Bs, meanwhile, arrived at Miramar in December 2009.
VMM-161 stayed extremely busy re-writing policies and procedures for its particular West Coast operational requirements. This was a huge task, since no one least of all Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control knew how to handle MV-22Bs in the local airspace. Would the Ospreys be treated as helicopters or airplanes? Could they be told to slow down or speed up? Even MCAS procedures had to be re-examined to accommodate the Ospreys. The task was divided between various officers in the squadron, since there was no way a single department could accomplish everything in the necessary timeframe.
Throughout 2010, VMM-161s focus was to become fully operationally capable (FOC), a standard to which every transitioning MV-22B squadron is held. To become FOC, a number of things need to happen. The squadrons maintenance department has to have all of its programs in place, demonstrating competency in repairing the aircraft by the book. And, of course, pilots and flight crews must become fully trained and qualified in the MV-22B.
The biggest pilot training challenge for VMM-161 was finding adequate local training areas. Crews need a wide variety of training areas to conduct a multitude of training scenarios, including tactical approaches (in which an aircraft is maneuvered from 250 knots to zero, landed, unloaded and returned to flight in the shortest time possible). Finding these training areas in populated and environmentally sensitive areas can be difficult. Over time, however, the squadron was able to identify what it needed, and crews then progressed quickly through their training to become FOC.
When a squadron such as VMM-161 does becomes FOC, Marine Corps headquarters is able to deploy it or task it with operational missions. Accordingly, VMM-161 is currently slated to deploy to Afghanistan. Their strong foundation should help ensure a pool of experienced pilots who can teach new V-22 pilots coming through the pipeline.
The MV-22 Osprey has provided the Greyhawks with a strong leap in capability, one they have waited many years to obtain. The MV-22B has substantially better speed and range than the legacy CH-46E, combined with a climb rate as good as some airliners and excellent low-level maneuvering skills (see p.108, Vertical, Feb-Mar 2012). As one MV-22B pilot recently told Vertical 911, The MV-22B isnt a helicopter, but a turboprop that hovers, and hovers well. Our commanders are recognizing that MV-22Bs are able to arrive at an objective three times faster than a CH-46E, and go four times farther, and climb and accelerate in a completely different category than helicopters. . . . With this aircraft, our battlespace decreases in size, and we have many more options during combat operations.
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