On December 5, the Army announced its selection of Bell’s tilt-rotor V-280 Valor as its replacement for the legendary (but aging) UH-60 Black Hawk, and almost immediately, we received a number of questions about the V-22 Osprey’s reputation for being an unsafe platform and how that could affect the V-280’s performance.
These questions make some sense. After all, the V-22 program has certainly seen a number of high-profile incidents leading to the deaths of service members, dating all the way back to the early 1990s. But the truth is, the Osprey has proven itself to be a rather safe and reliable platform despite its setbacks.
The first fatalities associated with the Osprey were in July of 1992 when seven Marines were killed. Eight years later, another Osprey full of Marines would go down, killing 19. In all, 51 service members have died in Osprey crashes throughout the program’s lifetime, with the most recent coming in June of this year when an Osprey belonging to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing crashed in California, killing five.
Every service member lost in training or combat is a tragedy, but in order to determine whether the V-280 is truly an unsafe replacement for the UH-60, it’s important to view these tragic incidents through an admittedly difficult-to-muster lens of objectivity.
Fatalities are an unfortunate fact of life in military aviation regardless of platform, and while there’s a valid argument to be made that many of these deaths could have been avoided through better training or maintenance practices, the Osprey certainly isn’t alone in its stomach-churning body count.
Between 2013 and December 2020, 224 service members died in over 6,000 separate DoD aviation accidents that destroyed 186 aircraft and caused around $10 billion worth of damage.
And despite the Osprey’s negative reputation, you won’t find its incident record as a dangerous outlier in service-wide or branch-specific data. As Marine Maj. Jorge Hernandez, spokesman for Marine aviation, explained to the Military Times in a July e-mail, the Marine Corps’ MV-22 Osprey has a lower mishap rate per 100,000 flight hours than the Harrier, Super Hornet, F-35B, or CH-53E Super Stallion.
“The 10-year average mishap rate for MV-22′s is 3.16 per 100,000 flight hours,” Hernandez wrote on July 8.
In the 33 years since the Osprey started flying, 51 service members have died in crashes. In the first 33 years the H-60 Black Hawk flew, more than 180 American service members and civilians died in non-combat-related crashes according to the list tallied by ArmyAirCrews.com. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that the Black Hawk existed in higher volume than the Osprey during this time and I was unable to find accurate data on the UH-60’s mishap rate per 100,000 flight hours early in its lifespan. I was, however, able to confirm that Black Hawk, like most programs, had its own series of early setbacks.
In April of 1985, six years after entering service, the Army’s fleet of some 630 UH-60s was grounded pending investigations into 37 deaths across 23 incidents. Three years later, that fleet had grown to 970, but an additional eight incidents brought the death toll up to 65. To be clear, it seems likely that the Black Hawk may have still had a better mishap rate than the Osprey during this time — as the Army pointed out in March of 1988, it remained the “safest helicopter the Army had ever flown” despite these fatalities. Helicopter technology at this point was, to be fair, quite a bit more mature than tilt-rotor platforms were when the Osprey entered service.
The point isn’t to suggest that the Osprey is safer than the Black Hawk, but rather just to point out how these sorts of tragedies are, to some extent, inherent to the danger of military aviation.
There are, however, a few factors that play into the Osprey’s perception as unsafe. The first may be recency bias, as the V-22 only entered service in 2007, compared to the decade-spanning careers of its peers. Aircraft, like people, often only get one chance at a first impression, and the Osprey’s early crashes certainly left their mark.
The second tragic variable to consider is the Osprey’s utilitarian role as the Marine Corps’ workhorse troop transport. When a fighter jet crashes, you might see one or two fatalities, but when an aircraft carrying two dozen Marines goes down, the death toll can be much higher. As a result, the Marine Corps’ Hornets and Super Hornets may go down at more than twice the rate of the Osprey, but this results in fewer fatalities.
To be clear, the Osprey does have a much higher number of fatal mishaps than the H-60 series of helicopters, but it’s important to remember that the H-60 series has been flying for nearly 50 years.
In short, the tilt-rotor Osprey has seen some tragic incidents in its service life, but it’s certainly not the systemically unsafe platform many seem to think it is.
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