Mideast edition, Tuesday, July 17, 2007

ARLINGTON, Va. — Beginning this fall, Marines and supplies will be ferried in and out of battles in Iraq in a controversial aircraft that is a hybrid between a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft.

The MV-22 Osprey makes its combat debut in September. The aircraft is able to tilt its propellers to take off and land like a helicopter and then fly like a regular airplane.

Marine Capt. Lee York, a pilot with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263, said the aircraft allows crews to drop off Marines for a mission and then remain in the area to evacuate any casualties.

York, 34, explained that the Osprey can orbit longer than helicopters because it flies at higher altitudes, thus it can fly at slower speeds.

The aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters that the Corps uses now cannot remain available to evacuate casualties after dropping off troops unless they carry fewer Marines into combat to conserve fuel, said York, of Easton, Mass.

The Corps hopes that the MV-22 will eventually replace the CH-46, but the Osprey has yet to prove itself in combat.

The aircraft has a bad reputation stemming from several crashes of test aircraft, including one April 2000 crash in Arizona that killed 19 Marines.

Sgt. Zachary Hoag, a crew chief with VMM-263, said he has worked with the Osprey for more than four years.

Like any aviator, he has had scares during that time, but none were serious, said Hoag, 23, from Rochester, N.Y.

“I’ve never been scared enough where I seriously thought I was going to die from the aircraft,” he said.

Capt. Michael Parrott, a pilot in the squadron, said the people who fly the Osprey know it is safe.

The Osprey has a feature that will tell pilots in exacting detail what is wrong if a problem arises, so it is like flying with a running commentary, said Parrott, 33, of Howell, Mich.

The aircraft can also fly at higher altitudes, putting it out of range out of most weapons that could harm it, Parrott said.

That advantage is particularly important considering a rash of helicopter shootdowns earlier this year, including one CH-46 that was hit by a rocket in February, killing five Marines and two Navy corpsmen.

September’s deployment has been a long time coming for Sgt. Michael E. Aguilar, a crew chief with the MV-22 squadron.

Aguilar, 28, said he has been with the Osprey program for three years after switching Military Occupational Specialties from an administrative clerk to an aviator.

“Being able to go there first and show what this thing can do is an honor,” the San Antonio native said.

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