The versatility of the CV-22 Osprey sets a well-known standard for Special Operations Forces. Lesser known is the flexibility which extends beyond the aircraft’s unique capabilities to the Airmen who employ it.
Two of the Osprey’s four crew positions are manned by enlisted special mission aviators, a job which requires them to maintain currencies and stay proficient on, not only two distinct roles, but two physically separate locations on the aircraft.
“The crew is made up of two pilots and two SMAs,” said Staff Sgt. Justin O’Brien, 7th Special Operations Squadron special mission aviator and NCO in charge of current operations. “One of us sits in the cockpit between the pilots, and the other on the tail. It’s two completely different jobs, 180 degrees from one another.”
While the SMA position in the front of the aircraft focuses on standard flight engineer duties, such as controlling aircraft systems, mission management, aircraft safety and flight planning, the role of the SMA on the tail falls more in line with both loadmaster and aerial gunner duties.
“When you go to the back, you’re in the tail scanner crew position,” said O’Brien. “On the tail we’re responsible for keeping everyone in the back safe, operating the ramp mounted weapon system -- a .50-cal GAU-21, weight and balance, clearing the landing zone and alternate insertions and extractions which are mainly fast rope and hoist.”
With such a diverse set of responsibilities, CV-22 crews have to not only know their aircraft, but also be confident that each member is prepared to accomplish the job they’ve been assigned and prepared to speak up when needed.
“We are the voice of reason and the systems’ expert on what’s going on underneath the panels,” said O’Brien. “When something goes wrong, we have to be assertive, identify the problem, look for any secondary indications and act.”
These enlisted Airmen play a vital role in the flying squadron that crews and commanders rely upon, both in the unit and downrange during operations.
“The role of the SMA in a CV-22 is one of the toughest jobs in the Air Force. Not only do we expect our SMAs to perform a myriad of complex tasks, we rely on them to do so autonomously, trusting them to make mission-critical decisions on our behalf,” said Lt. Col. James Peterson, 7th SOS commander.
“While some folks have contended that we should split SMA duties into two distinct career fields, I cannot overstate the importance of having a crewmember on the ramp with an understanding of what’s going on in the cockpit,” continued Peterson. “More often than not, when a situation becomes dynamic, the tail-scanner who is removed from the chaotic situation in the cockpit provides critical input to the aircraft commander. There is simply no way we could employ the CV-22 as effectively without the unique contribution of our two SMAs assigned to each crew.”
The ability to fluidly integrate with the rest of the crew does not come without a price, and that price is training. The CV-22 SMAs spend their first year in technical training. This includes approximately three months of initial SMA training at Joint Base San Antionio-Lackland, Texas, four months of initial training and screening on the UH-1N Huey at Ft. Rucker, Ala., and six to eight months of Osprey-specific training at Kirkland Air Force Base, N.M. As with all Air Force specialties, this training continues after an Airman is stationed at their first base and throughout their career.
Until recently, CV-22 SMAs pulled exclusively from Air Force members who retrained from other career fields. This comes with a bit of a learning curve, but one that O’Brien was happy to embrace.
“I was security forces for four years. I enjoyed what I did, but I was ready for a change,” said O’Brien. “(Being an SMA) brings an operations tempo that is fast and busy, but the benefits come with the direct interaction I have with the mission and the people we support.”
Even with the challenges, the unique position they hold and the capabilities of the CV-22 Osprey are a point of pride for these Airmen.
“The CV-22 allows us to go places that other aircraft, even other Ospreys, can’t,” said O’Brien. “All around the continent, we contribute to allied country’s missions and prove we can work seamlessly in a variety of scenarios.”