CLARK AIR BASE PHILIPPINES – The U.S. Marines’ newest and in some quarters most controversial transport airplane is showing the world what it’s got — for the sake of the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, and perhaps its own future.
The MV-22 Osprey, which can tilt its rotors to fly like either a helicopter or a fixed-wing aircraft, is delivering tons of aid every day to people affected by the Nov. 8 storm. The U.S. military’s humanitarian effort presents a golden opportunity. The marines want to show how safe and versatile the Osprey is, countering critics and helping to persuade allies to buy their own Ospreys.
Anger over the decision to base the aircraft on Okinawa, the only place in Asia where they are permanently deployed, has made the aircraft the poster boy of anti-military sentiment in Japan. Opponents cite noise problems and high-profile crashes in the early days of the Osprey, though its safety record since then has been better than any other helicopter-type aircraft.
With its unique design, the Osprey can fly faster and farther and carry heavier loads than the helicopters that it replaced.
“Anything that’s different generates criticism. And the Osprey is different,” said Capt. Travis Keeney, who has been flying the aircraft for six years. “There’s nothing like it in military history.”
He has taken the Osprey to Iraq, Libya and Africa, but this is the biggest humanitarian mission he has ever been involved in. He wants his aircraft to shine, and his squadron has a lot to prove.
Keeney’s first orders Tuesday appeared to have little to do with humanitarian aid. His crew was told to sit tight and prepare to transport an Israeli general.
The Osprey has proven itself in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that has gotten the attention of militaries around the world — including Israel’s.
“Everybody wants to see it,” Keeney said.
But that plan was scrapped, and by 10:30 a.m., Keeney’s Osprey and five others delivering aid were on their way to a busy drop zone in Borongan on the island of Samar.
Keeney’s day usually goes about 12 hours — with nine or 10 in the pilot’s seat and six of actual flying. Shifts earlier in the crisis were longer, but even now he doesn’t have time for breaks.
As the plane, bursting with boxes of supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development, got close to the disaster zone, the crew chief lowered the back ramp, turning the rear of the Osprey into a huge window onto the bright blue Gulf of Leyte and the devastated Samar coastline below. The crew assessed the damage along the way to see what other places they should try to reach.
Borongan, the first stop, was not so badly affected, and the drop was organized and efficient. Local men ran to the Osprey, grabbed the boxes and raced back to the loading area. In 15 minutes, the Osprey was airborne again.
Lifting off in an Osprey feels much like it does in any helicopter, but when it switches to airplane mode it is much faster, zooming forward like a jet.
Guiuan, the next stop, has suffered far more damage and was much more hectic. It was so congested with aircraft that Keeney decided to fly instead to the USS George Washington, a short hop offshore. Within half an hour, the Osprey was refueled and back in Guiuan with supplies to drop off from the carrier.
From there, the Osprey flew to Tacloban, which was almost completely flattened by the storm and has become a hub for aid efforts.
The area around the runway has become a tent city populated by nongovernmental organizations, military planners, emergency workers and local people desperate for supplies or a flight out. Helicopters buzz the skies like mosquitoes.
Keeney took off as soon as the plane got more fuel and supplies, including 10 bags of rice. En route to Guiuan, over the eastern Samar town of Salcedo, Keeney saw a distress signal spelled out on the ground. He decided to make a quick drop.
As soon as the ramp went down in Salcedo, dozens of men, women and children rushed the plane, ignoring instructions from the crew. They climbed on board and fought each other to get the bags of rice.
This was what crew chief Michael Anthony Marin had been told wouldn’t happen — that the chaotic early days of the aid effort were over. This was his first flight since getting to the Philippines, and his first real-world operation as a marine. “I was scared as hell,” he said later. “You could see the desperation in their eyes. I was worried about the safety of my crew members.”
Fearing the situation could get out of control, the crew cranked up the Osprey’s propellers, creating a deafening roar and a strong rotor wash on the ground. With no more rice to grab and the wind on the ground making it hard even to stand upright, the crowd dispersed and the Osprey flew off.
The next stop was nearby. This time, townspeople ran to the plane, formed a chain gang and quickly offloaded the USAID boxes — no panic, no fighting.
“I guess a situation like this just brings out the best and the worst in people,” Marin said. “You want to keep them going, but there is only so much you can do.”