January Book Club Selection: The Dream Machine

A new “untold history” of the V-22 asks: Is the Osprey safe?

After a troubled development, the MV-22 was deployed to Iraq in 2007; it's shown here being refueled for a 2008 mission. U.S. Navy /Chief Mass Communication Specialist Joe Kane

This month's book club pick is The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey, by Richard Whittle. (Simon & Schuster, 2010, 464 pp., $27)

Whittle tells the often gripping tale of the development, near-death, and final redemption of one of the most controversial and fascinating aircraft ever flown. A veteran military and aviation reporter, Whittle is able to clearly explain technical subjects—like vortex ring state, which can in rotorcraft cause a departure from controlled flight—and connect those discussions to the political battles and media frenzy that almost killed the V-22.

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Read an excerpt from the book here. Or read this review by George C. Larson, from our February/March 2011 issue:

The V-22 Osprey, more popularly known as the tiltrotor, may have begun as a program with broad military applications, but it resolved fairly early into one that received its care and feeding from the U.S. Marine Corps. This thorough account of the aircraft’s development, by a Pentagon reporter who has followed the Osprey story for more than 20 years, is therefore a story of the Marine Corps as well.

Whittle does an excellent job summing up the aircraft, its strengths and flaws, and the Marines’ pursuit of a machine that forced the invention of materials and processes in bringing previously unknown technologies to bear on an old problem: the inherent speed limit on rotary-wing aircraft. The key flaw in the Osprey’s design was one introduced by the U.S. Navy’s stipulation that the rotor diameter be limited to a dimension based on the size of the decks on a handful of vessels that would launch and recover the Osprey at sea. The Bell-Boeing consortium could have insisted that the rotors, being the very heart of the design, be uncompromised and that the ships be modified instead. But the Navy won that one, and Whittle reveals how the aerodynamic repercussions of that decision played out fatally.

Perhaps as tragic as the deadly accidents during development was the sullying of the corps’ treasured reputation as incorruptible. That happened when some Marine officers altered data they feared might make the aircraft look bad or even cause the program to be killed. Whittle makes the case that the outcome of a military program can make or break careers and reputations, and pressure to succeed can be a dark force that has overwhelmed men of stalwart character since the procurement of the first muzzle-loader.

The ultimate judgment of the V-22 in service is still years away, as the Osprey has only recently entered combat operations, in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2009. It’s worth recalling that the aircraft was intended as a replacement for the tandem-rotor CH-46 Sea Knight, a heavy-lift transport. Because it was originally sold as a high-speed, long-range means of combat assault, however, the Osprey faces a higher bar.

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