The V-22 Osprey's first flight on March 19, 1989. (Bell Flight)
The V-22 Osprey’s first flight on March 19, 1989. (Bell Flight)

Thirty years ago, on March 19, 1989, the Bell [TXT]-Boeing [BA] V-22 Osprey first broke contact with the ground, initiating a program that would suffer tragic trials before entering service and becoming one of the most in-demand combat aircraft in the U.S. military fleet.

More than 375 Osprey tiltrotors — the only aircraft of its kind in service in the world — have since racked up 450,000 flight hours with the U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force Special Operations Command and the President’s airborne entourage.

“Over the last 30 years, the V-22 has reshaped power projection, assault support and special operations airlift. Since that first flight in Arlington, Texas, the V-22 has proven its worth on the battlefields of Iraq Afghanistan, Syria and around the world,” said U.S. Marine Col. Matthew Kelly, V-22 Joint Program manager. “Thirty years later, now a networked platform, still with unmatched speed, and battlespace reach, the V-22 continues to enable global power projection and worldwide crisis response on a scale never before possible. The US Services and our allies look forward to the next 30 years of V-22s dominating the battlefield.”

That first flight was conducted in helicopter mode and it would take six more months for the aircraft to demonstrate airplane-mode forward flight. The program suffered its fair share of developmental delays, cost overruns, being a radically new vertical lift technology, and a series of fatal test flight accidents. In 2000, 23 Marines were killed in two accidents, leading to a lengthy grounding and the Osprey’s entry to service was eventually delayed until 2007.

The Marine Corps has since used the Osprey’s superior speed and range to radically alter the way it conducts airborne ship-to-shore operations. Other services and international customers are beginning to catch on to the tactical advantages of tiltrotor technology. The U.S. Navy will begin using a new V-22 variant to deliver personnel and cargo to its aircraft carriers, replacing the legacy C-2 Greyhound in the carrier onboard delivery role. Japan has signed up to be the first V-22 international customer.

The V-22 has deployed to operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait, and participated in humanitarian operations, including earthquake relief in Haiti and Japan and hurricane response in the U.S. So popular was the aircraft in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that the Osprey was rolling off the assembly line and straight into combat for more than a decade, resulting in more than 70 different configurations in service.

Bell is working to keep the Osprey operationally relevant for another 40 years and simplifying training and maintenance through a “common configuration readiness and modernization” program to consolidate the fleet into fewer than 17 configurations. It also is working to improve and simplify the nacelles, which is “where the magic happens,” said Chris Gehler, vice president of Bell’s V-22 Program and deputy program director for the Bell-Boeing joint venture.

“The Osprey continues to prove that tiltrotor technology has many benefits for operators challenged in the toughest environments,” he said. “The V-22 enables operations in a way that was not previously possible. The high demand for Ospreys is a signal that the aircraft is essential for customers around the world.”