Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/14/ospreys_for_hmx_1/

Obama gets personal V-22 Osprey tiltrotor

Plane-copter combocraft take on 'Marine One' role

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 14th April 2011 12:01 GMT

President Obama's personal helicopter fleet will soon include the famous, controversial V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, according to reports. However it seems unlikely that the amazing plane-copter combo craft will land on the White House lawn very often.

A V-22 Osprey coming in to land at the Pentagon. Credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Brandan W Schulze

It's OK for the Pentagon. Is it OK for the White House?

Military.com reports that HMX-1, the US Marine aviation squadron which provides the presidential helicopters – such a chopper assumes the callsign "Marine One" when the president is aboard, just as any airforce plane becomes "Air Force One" – is soon to get V-22 Ospreys. However the tiltrotors will not be replacing the VH-3 Sea Kings and VH-60 Blackhawks which are normally seen lifting the leader of the free world on and off his front lawn: rather the V-22s will replace the squadron's monster Sea Stallion heavy-lift copters.

The Stallions don't normally carry the president, but are used to shift presidential kit or in other utility tasks. The wider Marine Corps has a large fleet of these monster helicopters, now under some strain due to combat operations in Afghanistan, and the presidential Stallions will now supplement the regular fleet. Some 14 Ospreys will be assigned to VIP support duties in their place.

The Sea Kings which actually fly the president about are getting very old and should have been replaced some time ago. Under the Bush administration the official plan was to use a specially modified version of the Merlin helicopter now in service with the Royal Navy, RAF and other European forces. The Merlin was chosen in part because it is one of the larger choppers which could set down on the White House lawn without causing too much destruction.

But the Merlin isn't particularly strong in the matter of lifting power*, and it struggled desperately to carry any reasonable number of people along with the communications and protective kit required in the presidential role. The project's costs climbed to the point where it became an issue in the presidential election, with both candidates vying to condemn it. The Merlin was duly axed shortly after Mr Obama took office, and since then the Marines have been scratching their heads and looking for something else.

Rotary-wing colossus Boeing suggests that the Osprey could replace the Sea King as well as the heavy-lift Stallion at HMX-1: it has previously been reported that the tiltrotor could physically fit onto the White House lawn. The Marines would love the idea of using their often-criticised flagship aircraft in their most prestigious task, and the V-22's aeroplane capabilities could save time and add security.

Can you really fold one of these things up into a transport plane?

On the other hand, the Osprey is a lot harder on its landing pads than normal choppers are. The comparatively small prop discs are heavily loaded when it is flying as a helicopter – in other words they are blasting air harder than choppers normally do – and the super-hot jet exhausts point straight down in this situation, unlike those of a normal copter.

A V-22 Osprey folded on the deck of USS Wasp. Credit: US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary L Borden

It does fold up ... kind of

The exhausts are officially acknowledged as being so hot that they warp and buckle the steel flight decks of US warships, and the Osprey's downblast is known to be fierce indeed. An Osprey landing in a park as part of Memorial Day festivities last year scattered spectators like ninepins, hurling some of them as much as 30 feet.

The Osprey would probably be highly unpopular with the White House gardeners should it replace the Sea King, then, and aviation-industry sources have also suggested to the Reg that the Osprey would struggle in the matter of being shipped around the world to accompany the president, as his personal choppers are required to be. The present Sea Kings and Blackhawks are folded up and put into massive C-17 or C-5 transport planes which follow Air Force One, but this could be a laborious business with the complicated Osprey – much though it is designed for shipborne operations, and as such its wings do fold up.

All in all it seems probable that the main Marine One task will be taken on by something a little more conventional. But following yesterday's reports, it is also clear that at least some V-22s will soon be painted in presidential livery. ®

Bootnote

*The Royal Navy Merlin can't achieve a hover with a full combat load, meaning that it has to roll forwards to take off (or get its carrying ship to do so). The RAF cargo-carrying variant carries only 4 tons, less than a smaller Blackhawk can manage.