WASHINGTON – A Marine Corps aviation squadron known as the Thunder Chickens will head to Iraq in September to introduce the Bell-Boeing V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft to combat, ferrying troops and cargo across a turbulent province known as the heart of the country’s Sunni Muslim insurgency.
Ten V-22 Ospreys will be based at the al Assad Marine Corps air station in Anbar province after the 171-member Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263, or VMM 263, lands in Iraq next fall. The unit has been training for more than a year out of its home base at New River Marine Corps Air Station, N.C.
Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, announced the time and date of the first V-22 deployment at a Pentagon briefing Friday, joining other Marine officials and V-22 boosters in expressing confidence that the aircraft has fully resolved the problems of a troubled past and is ready for war.
The aircraft takes off and lands like a helicopter and flies like an airplane, reaching speeds and distances well beyond those of traditional helicopters.
The aircraft program has struggled to survive at times and was grounded for 18 months after two fatal crashes in 2000. Critics continue to question the Osprey’s suitability for combat, but the Pentagon announcement Friday constituted an unqualified endorsement of its airworthiness after an extensive redesign and more than 19,000 hours of flight tests.
“We think we can add a lot to the fight,” said Lt. Col. Paul J. Rock Jr., the commander of the Thunder Chickens, a nickname passed down from a predecessor squadron. Rock’s unit was designated as the first combat V-22 squadron last year but learned of the specific assignment only about three weeks ago, he said.
The squadron, which represents the first wave of V-22 combat deployments, will be based in a hard-to-control province with more than 1 million Iraqis, a defiant Sunni insurgency and onetime hot spots such as Fallujah and Ramadi.