Photorecon flies with VMM-166 SeaElk

While attending the 100th Anniversary of Naval Aviation in San Diego, CA, the Photorecon team was invited to attend Media day at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Having previously covered numerous media events at MCAS Miramar, we knew what to expect.  As expected, the Marines went out of their way as our gracious hosts. As we arrived to a “red carpet” VIP reception, we were greeted by Maj Manual Delarosa, 2nd Lt Tyler Balzer and the enlisted PAO staff.

After a few cordial introductory handshakes, we were briefed on the events of the day and offered food and beverages to satisfy our needs.   Outside the reception area, the ramp was bustling with activity… with a crowd of Marine Corps members, both current and veteran status.

Exiting the reception, we navigated our way around the ramp, meeting and photographing these honorable men and woman who serve our country so proudly.

As it started to become apparent that something bigger was about to occur, Maj Delarosa and Lt Balzer marshaled us into groups.  We then were informed that we would have the opportunity to participate in an orientation flight.

My chief photographer Dave and I learned we would be flying with VMM-166, a squadron  known as the “SeaElk”.  We were to be flying aboard a VM-22 Osprey.  VMM-166 is new to the Osprey community, having completed the conversion from the CH-46E “SeaKnight” on June 25, 2010.

Following a brief van ride to VMM-166 headquarters, SSGT Borkowski began the briefing on the VM-22 Osprey.  He covered all aspects of safety and egress of the aircraft, providing us also with a mission profile.  The flight would be 2.5 hours, during which we would fly to MCAS Yuma for insertion demonstrations and battlefield tactical landings.

We would be flying at a maximum altitude of 11,000’ and flying with the rear cargo door open.  SSGT Borkowski, noticing we all had short-sleeved shirts on, put in a call for eight flight jackets to be sent up to the briefing room ASAP.  With flight jackets, on we were issued standard cranial head gear, the same type we wore on our recent embark to the Carl Vinson.

During our briefing, we had the chance to ask questions about the VM-22 Osprey, and one lingering question which no one seemed to want to ask (but finally did), was the question “How safe is this aircraft?”  Immediately, a senior officer intervened and was completely forthright in stating that the osprey program had indeed experienced a rough start and some tragic losses.

However, the version we were about to fly had an impressive safety record and currently was approaching 100,000 Accident-Free hours.  During the previous ten years, the V-22 has proven itself and currently has one of the lowest mishap rates of any rotor craft in the fleet.  Anyone listening could easily see how proud that officer was of the aircraft.

As soon as all were ready to fly, we proceeded to the maintenance hangar.  It is at the hangar that we were able to observe the dedicated men and women who keep the aircraft safe for flying.  Our aircraft call sign, “Lucky 20”, was on the ramp and the engines were running.

As we made our way to the aircraft the nearly- 40’ prop rotors were making a unique sound… not the chop and pop of a standard helicopter rotor but more of a smooth turbine engine sound with little down wash at idle.  We eagerly made our way onto the aircraft via the cargo ramp.

The interior of the Osprey is standard military:  All wires, tubes and hoses exposed, giving one a good idea of the complexity of the systems onboard.   We took our seats, facing each other, along the side of the aircraft.

Helping us get secured were crew chiefs, Sgts Beams, Judd and Martinez.  After a thumbs-up from all of us they secured their own harnesses and clipped on a 6’ nylon strap to anchor points on the floor of the aircraft. As we got our clearance to taxi, we began to realized that we were onboard a unique aircraft; as we rolled along the runway and the RPMs came up the aircraft started to sound like a traditional helicopter, yet still rolling along the runway.  Then, smoothly, we lifted off the runway. As the nacelles rotated forward, a slight push then acceleration was felt as we began to gain altitude, no buffet or sinking feeling was noted during transition.

We departed Miramar under IFR and proceeded west toward the Salton Sea.  Our climb was fast in order to clear the large mountains just east of San Diego. The rear door was open and we had a chilly yet breathtaking view of the Salton basin, crossing over it at 11,000’ and at a speed of 250 kts indicated… speed like this is what the Marines has been looking for in a troop transport /utility aircraft for years.  After passing the Salton Sea we cancelled the IFR portion of the flight and proceeded in VFR descending toward a site known as Aux 2, a small field just to the south of MCAS Yuma.

Before we knew it we were descending fast and made a low-level pass by what appeared to be a small village made to look like one you would see in a desert halfway around the world.  This fast, low-level pass was followed by a very hard vertical pull-up to get set for a tactical approach to the field.

The landing was called a conversion landing as we went from aircraft mode to helicopter mode, followed by a smooth (if not quite dusty) landing.   After idling on the ground for a short while, I was asked if I wanted to sit in the jump seat for the remainder of the flight.  Dave was offered a harness like the crew chiefs had on so he could stand in the rear and shoot photos out the open cargo door.

I proceeded to the front of the aircraft.  It had a standard cockpit door like many commercial aircraft have, the only difference was it had a top 2’x2’ section that can be opened so the crew can look back and or communicate with the crew chief if standard COM is lost.  The door was closed after I was on the flight deck; the jump seat folded down off the inside of the door to become my seat, just slightly above the pilots.

This was the first time I saw the pilots, Maj Ken “NASA” Hawkins and Capt Mike “D-fib” Murray.  They welcomed me to the flight deck and asked what I wanted to see.  I said simply, “Let’s see what this thing can do.”  In response, both men smiled and nodded, asked if I was ready and off we went.

We executed a 60 deg RTO (Running Take Off) during which the nacelles are set to 60deg and the Osprey takes off like a traditional aircraft.  The RTO is used when density altitude is high, the aircraft is heavy due to fuel, pax or it is very hot outside, or any combination thereof. NASA and D-fib then executed several high speed low-level passes over Aux2, demonstrated another conversion mode approach, a  straight-in 90 deg offset approach, a 180 deg offset tactical approach, and a few VERY hard combat breaks followed by a lot of low-level zooming and banking.

For a moment I thought of Dave hanging on a strap on the cargo ramp, wondering if he was still OK…he must have been because no call to “knock it off” came from the cargo area.

The last maneuver we performed was called a tactical departure, which truly demonstrated the vertical-climb power of the Osprey. As the RPMs came up and the gauges settled near maximum, it was as though someone released a hook and the aircraft shot off the Aux2 runway; immediately we tilted forward and were under way.  All I can say about that one was “OMG!!!!!”

With the performance demonstration concluded, we commenced VFR back to MCAS Miramar where we performed a straight-in approach.  And, of course, to make sure I was not sleeping, NASA and D-fib did a combat break over mid-field, followed by a conventional rolling landing on runway 24L with the nacelles  in a slightly forward position.

I must say that my misunderstanding of this tilt-rotor aircraft, combined with reading BAD PRESS over the years, had me skeptical of the design and capabilities of the Osprey. I truly have a new found respect for the Osprey.   Its capabilities far exceed anything I could have imagined.

This flying machine is a valuable asset to our armed forces and should serve for many years to come.  HOORAHHHH the marines have landed a winner here.


Photorecon would like to thank:

MCAS Miramar, Maj Manual Delarosa, 2nd Lt Tyler Balzer and the entire Miramar PAO staff VMM-166 “SeaElk” and the flight crew of “LUCKY20” Pilots: Maj Ken “NASA” Hawkins, Capt Mike “D-fib” Murray Crew chiefs:  Sgt. Beams, Sgt. Judd, Sgt. Martinez And of course, The UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS

“Yes We Can”


Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 166 (VMM-166) Visit Them on Facebook


Joe Kates

Joe Kates is the founder of Photorecon. Joe has been into aviation since he was a child and has a incredible amount of knowledge to do with planes or aviation in general. Today Joe is the owner and Managing Editor of Photorecon.

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