“Oh yeah, they’re going to have an Osprey,” the NYPD K-9 unit policeman told me when I arrived at the Lower Manhattan Heliport at 4:30 AM. “Those things haven’t been too reliable. A lot of crashes lately. Good luck.” Two hours later, we were lifting off the ground.
I had gathered on the wind-swept, desolate pier with Tavarish, a handful of other journalists, reigning Miss USA Nia Sanchez, and Dean Cain (yes, that Dean Cain) to participate in this year’s New York City Fleet Week festivities, and they were already off to a nerve-wracking start. I had been telling myself for a week that I’d be fine. That the multitude of crashes incurred during the V-22 Osprey’s development, and another one just last week that killed one Marine and injured 21 others, didn’t mean that our Osprey would be going down too.
But they did hand us a helmet, a life vest, and an oxygen tank, just in case.
(Full Disclosure: The United States Navy wanted us to fly in an MV-22 Osprey so badly that after a little more than a year of intermittent begging and pleading for any sort of Fleet Week embark, they finally acquiesced to us hopping on board a helicopter to ride out to the USS San Antonio about a week before we were set to go. Little did we know that the aircraft we were about to get on is almost, but not entirely, completely unlike a helicopter.)
In case you’re not familiar with the Osprey, it’s borne of a very simple need. Helicopters can take off and land vertically, and they can hover as well. That’s really all well and good, until you realize that slapping a propeller on the top of an aircraft and lopping the wings off tends to make it as slow as a DMV line. So if you want an aircraft to move fast, it’s got to be an airplane.
There’s an old saying, however. A plane makes sense because it clearly obeys the laws of physics, wings and all. A helicopter doesn’t make any sense, because it just beats the laws of physics into submission. The Osprey is an attempt at combining those two things.
Back in the 1980s, the US military wanted something that could land like a helicopter, and go quickly like a plane. Eventually the solution was to basically have an airplane with two enormous engines fixed to the wingtips. For take off and landing, the engines and propellers would point vertically, beating the air into submission so that it can do all sorts of things in a vertical fashion, as well as hover.
But when it wants to get going, the entire engine and propeller assemblies rotate downwards, making sure all the thrust goes horizontally. The wings provide the lift, just as it would on any other airplane. In short, the whole process ends up looking a lot like this, except, you know, in the air:
The end result is a massively complex system, but one that can top 300 miles per hour at 15,000 feet.
And because of all that speed, the incredibly polite Navy reps that were guiding us through the day informed us we’d be boarding our US Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey last. The issue arose as it would take six UH-60 Seahawk helicopters, and one Osprey to get the entire media group out to the San Antonio, a huge amphibious transport ship that you can think of as much like an enormous floating parking garage, capable of carrying enough troops to take an entire beach. Unfortunately, the San Antonio and its accompanying destroyers, the USS Stout and the USS Barry, could only spare three Seahawks to ferry all of us.
So while the Seahawks (a navalized version of the Blackhawk) made two trips, us fortunate souls awaiting the Osprey would have to wait a little longer.
(Not that the guy running the heliport seemed happy that one would be arriving at all, mind you, as apparently the massive downwash generated by the enormous 38-foot rotors was vastly greater than the Navy’s workhorse Seahawks, which made the heliport’s fuel boxes blow open the last time a V-22 came through, with President Obama’s entourage.)
Which was fine, as when you already live your day-to-day life with the same anxiety as a Woody Allen character, you want more time to contemplate your seemingly inevitable demise on what everyone kept joking about was a very unreliable aircraft.
And let me assure you, in the most sarcastic way possible, that gallows humor is hilarious.
But how often do people get to ride on one of these things? I figured the huge opportunity outweighed the small risk, the same way a blue whale outweighs a mouse. There was no way I wasn’t going through with this.
After we watched the Seahawks come and go in the early dawn skies, it was finally our turn. An incredibly professional Marine officer had just begun to give us the rundown on how exactly our safety equipment would work, when we heard the WHOMP WHOMP WHOMP from the Osprey.
As loud as three Seahawks were, the Osprey easily put them to shame.
Because of all the noise, I couldn’t really hear much at all. We were given the life jacket, which went around our necks and which inflated with the pull of something, a helmet, which was supposed to protect our heads in the event of something, and a small bottle of oxygen connected to a hose which was connected to a mouthpiece, which we were supposed to use in the event of something as well.
I didn’t quite hear how to use it, but I do distinctly remember hearing the words “30 to 45 seconds of breathable air” before having to run. Let’s just hope that the something never would come to occur, and we’d never end up having a bit of a splash, as I’m pretty sure I would have spent 30 to 45 seconds dying in my own brain before finally snapping out of it, realizing I was maybe still alive, and then maybe trying to figure out how to get the damned bottle to work.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to figure it out, but it was time to get on board anyways. I squished my head into the helmet, which had attached noise suppressors which made the world around me go relatively silent, save for the muffled WHOMP WHOMP of the rotors. I scurried out onto the helipad, where the sheer drama of the thing immediately struck me. An Osprey doesn’t quite look like any other flying vehicle in the world, and yet, there it was, sitting in front of me with its twin blades spinning in the air.
Also, there was about a bunch of other journalists as dorky as myself taking pictures as I ran towards it, but that didn’t really take away from how awkward it looks on the ground.
I clambered up the open rear ramp, and suddenly realized what an absolute mess it was in side. Not because the Marines who run it are anything but virtually spit-shined and polished, in their own way, but the MV-22 is built for nothing if not utility. Bundles of exposed wires and cables cluttered the ceiling, pipes ran along the sides, and parallel sets of canvas seats lined the walls.
I hopped into an open seat, and immediately started fumbling with the seat belt. It’s not some five-point super-safety harness either, just a canvas lap belt, like you’d find in an old van. One of the Marines watching over us told me how to tighten it and checked to make sure that it was clasped.
I’m sure it was safe.
But I didn’t really have time to tediously contemplate anymore, as this thing was going. There wasn’t any time to dawdle with it. All of us dorks were all helmeted, lifejacketed, and seat belted in. I waited for them to close the rear hatch, and get going. I know I looked like an adorable nerd in all the gear I had on, but I didn’t care. They were about to close that big hatch, and we were about to set off in a vehicle that I had barely contemplated ever coming close to before.
Except they didn’t close what looked like a gaping hole in the back of the Osprey. We were just going anyways, with the back door wide open. And while that may sound nuts, and your mother would freak out at the notion of you flying out the back, it really was the complete opposite. As there’s only two real windows to speak of in the back of the aircraft, it was our one view onto the world throughout the trip.
And damn, what an awesome and incredible view it was, as Manhattan receded below. Lifting off in an Osprey doesn’t quite feel like lifting off in a regular airplane. It’s almost entirely vertical, with no real horizontal push back into the seat, or in this case sideways, as we were sitting along the walls. You just go.
The noise, even with the big earmuffs pressing into your jawbone so hard it hurts, is massive. Just the screaming, grinding, constant cacophony that is the valiant war cry of human-built machinery over the laws of physics. The whole thing vibrates and bumps and shakes along, like you’re on a constant gravel road in a car an old pickup with nothing out back.
A few things were surprising, however. As there aren’t really any good views out a window, you don’t really notice the engines rotating. Intellectually, you know it must be happening, but above the noise of the engines themselves you don’t actually hear any mechanical whirring, as I expected, when they move into place for horizontal flight. The only thing you really hear and feel over everything else is the big THUNK from the landing gear shoving up into the belly of the aircraft.
And because you can’t really see out the back once the Marines had raised the bottom half of the rear hatch, you mostly rely on your gut to feel what’s happening. You feel yourself moving up and down, yawing this way and that, banking hard (or what felt hard for me, as the smallest plane I’ve ever been in is a CRJ regional jet, but I’m sure wasn’t actually very hard at all), and slowing down as the pilots saw fit.
But even what you could see out the half-open back hatch was a crazy sight, with the Freedom Tower shrinking in the distance, and the beaches and sprawl of New Jersey following it.
I wish I could say it was an uneventful half hour ride, that it all went smoothly and then got kind of boring, but that would be lying.
Because after about a half hour, when we were unsure of exactly where we were beyond the vague notion of “somewhere off the coast of New Jersey,” we heard the Marine yelling something that sounded a lot like “WE’RE GOING TO MAKE A COUPLE OF LOW PASSES.”
The back hatch was lowered fully once more, and out it, you could see a vast ship.
The USS San Antonio.
Surrounding it was a veritable picket fence of destroyers, Coast Guard vessels, and even the odd NYPD boat making sure no one got too close. But we were about to land on it.
We swooped three times over the ship, each time getting closer, each time picking out more details from its slab sides, to its two Bushmaster cannons, to all the people walking around the deck. One of the Marines got an even closer look, lowering a hatch on the starboard side of the Osprey, and sticking what looked like damn near three-quarters of his body out.
After the third and final swoop, my gut got a big sinking feeling as we slowed to what felt like a slow crawl. Out the back, all I could see was a wide swath of churned water emanating from the propellers of the San Antonio.
I turned to my left, to look out the still-open side hatch, when I just glanced what seemed to be a guy clad entirely in purple standing just to our right. Before I could finish wondering how someone was standing outside our Osprey, we landed on the deck with a big thud. It almost felt like a regular airplane landing, except the sort you’d do with a new, trainee pilot, despite probably being incredibly soft considering we were in some sort of bizarre plane-helicopter hybrid gently setting down on a pitching, rolling, and moving ship.
A few seconds more, and we were given the signal to undo our belts and head out the back. The propeller downwash was incredibly powerful, to the point where it almost felt like it would knock you over.
But we were aboard. And holy hell, what a ride. If a weird plane-helicopter hybrid thing beats the laws of physics, then I don’t want them.
Photos credit: Tavarish