April 13, 2007 -- It's not often that someone gets to fly on a helicopter and a plane on the same day, no less on the same flight.
But members of the Pentagon press corps experienced just that when they flew aboard the Marine Corps' MV-22 Osprey, a tilt rotor aircraft that can fly like a plane and land or take off like a helicopter when necessary.
The Marines had just announced that 10 of the aircraft would be operating in Iraq beginning next September. As part of the announcement, the Pentagon offered reporters an opportunity to see what the aircraft could actually do.
A demonstration flight over the Marine Base at Quantico left some reporters wobbly-kneed, others exhilarated and some just plain woozy.
Before departing, reporters heard the Marines top aviation officer, Lt. Gen. John Castellaw, say the aircraft would do well in Iraq against small-arms fire because "it's harder to shoot a rabbit that's running than the one that's sitting still."
The Osprey's speed and maneuverability were definitely on display during the demonstration.
The Marines hope that by 2018, the Osprey will have replaced the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight, a helicopter first introduced in the Vietnam War that has served as the main troop transport for decades.
First conceived in the mid-'80s, the Osprey has experienced various fits and starts and rising costs that have slowed its development. Currently, the Marines have about 65 of the aircraft operating.
Greenlight for Iraq Deployment
The aircraft's deployment is seen as a major accomplishment for planes that cost $100 million apiece and whose viability was questioned following two major crashes in 2000 that killed 23 Marines and stained the Osprey's reputation.
Lessons learned from those accidents convinced the Marines a year ago that the plane was ready for regular flight operations. Now, top Marine officials are confident the plane's speed and agility will make transporting Marines in Iraq safer. When flying like a plane, it is capable of flying at a speed of 240 knots or about 300 mph.
Ironically, the demonstration excursion began with a helicopter flight from the Pentagon helipad to Quantico aboard a CH-46.
A slow flight that could only be compared to sitting in the back of a pickup truck, it afforded a rare view of the Pentagon and the National Mall, thanks to the many windows aboard.
Following a quick news conference with squadron commanders, reporters got their first glimpse of the aircraft as two Ospreys buzzed the grassy landing field that was serving as the day's landing zone.
The planes came out of nowhere so fast that few if any of the cameras were likely able to get a recorded image of the flyby.
Later, both aircraft landed on the field like helicopters and awaited their passengers, many carrying tiny video cameras and just a wee bit anxious.
Reporters boarded the aircraft through the back, just as they'd boarded the CH-46. The first notable difference was the lack of windows. Only two small windows in the middle of the fuselage, compared with the many windows aboard the CH-46 that had provided such great aerial views on the trip to Quantico.
Where the lap belts on the CH-46 seemed as if they were just for decoration, a short time into our flight we were grateful for the shoulder-harnessed seat belts aboard the Osprey.
Despite warnings that pilots would execute S curves and zoom rapidly in altitude, passengers were surprised by the speed with which it all happened as gentle helicopter-style takeoffs seamlessly became speedy flights through the Virginia sky.
We could feel our bodies press against the fuselage when the pilots turned the aircraft in one direction, and we were grateful for the seat belt that kept us in our seats when the aircraft headed in the opposite direction.
Because of the small windows, there was no way to see which way the tilt-rotor engines were facing. Only a lucky few were able to get some quick shots through the small windows. That left everyone looking to the open boarding bay at the back of the aircraft to get a feel for the flight, especially during passing glimpses of the accompanying Osprey that was executing the same maneuvers as our plane.
Aside from the louder roar when the rotors would tilt into the vertical position, there were few tip-offs that the aircraft was about to land.
On that final landing there were undoubtedly some who couldn't wait to get off, but for the most part reporters came away with mostly positive reviews of their flight, with some lingering questions about how the aircraft would do when it faces its first true test in Iraq this fall.