OK, I admit it; I picked the title for this post mostly because I've always wanted to use the word "zerk" in a blog post title.
But bear with me, because I do have a cunning plan here.
The origin of this post came from something Ed posted over at Gin & Tacos about a USAF Class A mishap. Seems that the zoomies lost a V-22 "Osprey" tilt-rotor transport down in Florida the other day and Ed was harkening back to the halcyon days of his blog-youth when he called down fire and rain on the V-22 for being a massive boondoggle.
It got me thinking to the military kit I've encountered that smelled suspiciously like the someones involved in getting a hold of it had more in mind than getting there fustest with the mostest.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the M792 GAMA Goat ambulance.
I've never really figured out who thought these big bastards were a good idea. They were ginormous, slow, and clumsy. The motor was decent - a three-cylinder Detroit diesel - but the rest of the contraption was a mechanic's nightmare.
They were supposed to be amphibious, so the entire bottom was sealed outside of a couple of screw-in drain plugs. Which made any maintenance that required access to the bottom of the vehicle a frigging huge pain in the ass. The main wiring harness ran underneath the engine block, so if you ever developed a problem with an electrical line you had to pull the entire fuckin' power pack! To make matters worse it didn't float, really; the rubber seal on the tailgate split or tore within hours of leaving the factory, so the thing was always a danger of going to Davy Jones' Locker, while it "swam" by spinning it's tires as paddlewheels which worked about as well as you'd think.
The thing had no spare (the tires and wheels were too freaking huge to carry one) and if you flatted the idea was that you dragged out this "bridge kit" which locked the back part to the front - though it looked like a truck-and-trailer the Goat was actually one vehicle that had a universal joint in the middle - took off one of the back tires from the tractor to replace the flat, put the tractor in 6WD and drove away.
But damn GAMA Goat's the worst feature was the carrier bearing.
The bottom is sealed, remember? So the driveshaft to the rear wheels ran in a channel in the bottom of the trailer from the universal joint to the rear differential. It had a single bearing between the U-joint and the diff, mounted in a metal housing that stuck down below the trailer floor.
The bearing was just a regular old bearing of no particular distinction, and being underneath a tactical truck it tended to get filthy dirty. It was hard to reach - you had to crawl under the trailer to get to it. So drivers doing PMCS tended to skip lubing the carrier bearing. Even if you took the time to get under the damn trailer the grease fitting - the proper name for those little nipple things are "zerks" - tended to be caked with glaur, or had been banged on something and wouldn't take the grease gun nozzle. So the bearing tended to get dry and crusty. And then...
That was brought home to me in a particularly painfully embarrassing way when the carrier bearing of HQ-52 burned up like a vampire under a sunlamp and locked the entire rear driveshaft up tight just as I was crossing the swing bridge at Pedro Miguel Locks one lovely winter afternoon in 1986.
Well, THAT sucked.
The truck was stuck, and so was the bridge, and the entire crew of the Polish freighter waiting for the locks to open ambled over to laugh at the imperialist Yankee scum and his broken-down Goat. The lock-keeper went berserk in Panamanian, and the convoy commander detailed me to wait with the vehicle until the battalion's five-ton wrecker could drive all the way over from the Westside to tow me home.
Because, you see, military equipment tends to live a hard life; it's called upon to go places and do things no sensible civilian equipment would think of. So it makes sense to try and keep that equipment as simple and robust as possible. The M782's carrier bearing violated that rule. And I payed for it that day. Imagine if I'd been racing to pick up wounded men in combat. It doesn't pay to think about. Men would have died because of that damn carrier bearing, the operators who didn't maintain it, and the people who designed and fielded that vehicle.
Now the MV-22 is a just a VSTOL transport; in effect, a sort of quasi-helicopter. The way I see it the only real advantage it has over the current fleet of USMC rotary-wing aircraft is the in-flight speed.
But in my opinion the in-flight speed requirement is the weakest argument for the aircraft. I don't see that it has ever really been proven to be critical to the design – i.e., the USMC has never really explained why the 100-knot increase in maximum speed over the helos is that important.
Supposedly it's because it allows the V-22 to keep pace with fast movers, but since when in the past sixty-some years have our transport aircraft required fighter escorts?
Seems to me that this is really a macguffin. The guys want this thing because it's just flat-out, stomp-down fuckin' COOL.
And that's when I start thinking about carrier bearings.
Because I think the other issue - the bigger, eventually murderous issue - about the MV-22 that's going to bite the USMC and the aircraft's other users in the ass is that the tilt-rotors are going to prove to be a maintenance nightmare that will become a monster as these airframes age. Mission capable rate is already low – below 60% between FY09 and FY12 for the USMC, and combat equipment gets used hard, and fiddly bits like the tilt-rotors tend to age poorly. The maintenance estimates for the V-22 fleet has just been bumped up over 60%, and IMO this is waaaayyyyy too optimistic.
And that's just now, when everything is all shiny and new and all the grease fittings are clean. The dark days are to come, as these airframes age and the tilty bits in the rotors get worn and need more and more fixing. And we go years and years without a combat mission that required fighter escort for these transports to make everyone wonder why they seemed so important. And the cost of each aircraft goes up and the numbers of the mission-capable units go down and...
In the end it isn't that the USMC and the USAF and their contractors are jonesing for these things. I was a GI, and GIs, even and sometimes especially commissioned GIs, even admirals and generals, get a hard-on for cool shit, and what's cooler than an aircraft that's like a real-life Transformer?
Nope. The thing that rings my bell is that nobody in Congress seemed or seems willing to question the entire NEED for them, or the supposed missions that can't be performed without them.
After all, it's the Congress that's supposed to be the gatekeeper for all things warlike in our country. They're supposed to debate the weighty issues of going to war and making peace, of supplying the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen with the equipment, training, and geopolitical cunning they need to fight and win.
And it should have been the Congress to ask the hard questions; why is this aircraft necessary? What missions can it do that others cannot? Why is THIS aircraft necessary? What makes the need for speed so critical? What does this aircraft provide that another machine, or a combination of others, cannot - as, say, a helicopter can not - that will require the troopers riding in them to hope that everything works as designed and that the designs are good, that the tilt-rotors work just so all the time, every time, and that every single zerk is perfectly clean and shiny and new and smooth and full of grease.