Osprey sales could boost civil tiltrotor development

 - May 2, 2008, 7:40 AM

A new Pentagon order for V-22 Osprey tiltrotors could boost prospects for more rapid development of the BA609 civil tiltrotor. The U.S. Department of Defense signed a $10.4 billion contract for 167 more Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey military tiltrotors over the next five years, despite continuing engine problems on the machine. The Marine Corps will receive 141 MV-22s and the Air Force 26 CV-22s for its Special Operations Command. The new order will join the 100 V-22s already delivered to the military. Since October, the Marines have operated a squadron of MV-22s in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The V-22 program has been steeped in controversy through- out its three-decade development. Recently, high operating temperatures have called into question the durability of the V-22’s $2 million Rolls-Royce AE1107C engines. The problem appears to be linked to premature degradation of compressor blades and is more acute in desert environments due to sand and dust. Rolls-Royce is currently working on protective blade coatings, but V-22 engines are being replaced at a rate more rapid than originally anticipated and at a pace that exceeds Rolls-Royce’s ability to recover engine maintenance costs under a separate 1998 maintenance contract. It has also caused some in the Pentagon to question whether the engine can “grow” to handle the additional power requirements of the V-22 as its mission envelope is expanded.

Col. Matthew Mulhern, Marine Corps program manager for the MV-22, said a variety of corrective options–including finding a new engine supplier–were under study to solve the engine problem. Any new V-22 engine order would be substantial–as many as 900 engines to power the new block of V-22s on order, plus spares for it and the existing fleet. Rolls-Royce has already delivered 250 engines to the program. However, switching the engine supplier could be complicated due to the aircraft’s limited production run and the special requirements of the engine, specifically that it operate through 90 degrees of pitch at speeds from hover to more than 250 knots.

Separately, the V-22 was injected into the ongoing controversy over the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award a $35 billion aerial tanker contract to Northrop Grumman and European aerospace consortium EADS, rather than Boeing.

Under terms of the deal, the new tankers would use the airframe of the Airbus A330 widebody twinjet. Boeing claimed in its protest of the contract that the A330 would not be able to refuel certain types of aircraft, including the V-22. Northrop Grumman disputes that claim.

Neither the A330 nor the 767, Boeing’s entry for the contract, has conducted flight tests using the centerline hose and drogue required to refuel the V-22. Ospreys currently refuel from Lockheed Martin C-130 turboprops.