WASHINGTON — During an April 12 hearing, lawmakers hammered military officials over what they will do to address a wave of rising aviation mishaps documented by Military Times, which found that accidents had grown by 40 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2017.
The panel of two and three-stars from the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps all shared concerns over the services’ readiness — including the need to increase training hours and access to spare parts — but said there would be no single, easy fix for the problems.
“We know we need to do that, but again each one of those mishaps will have a unique cause and so there is not a universal panacea if you will that we can invest money in a certain spot,” said Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, head of Naval Air Systems Command.
But Rep. Mike Turner, the Ohio Republican who leads the subcommittee, was skeptical that there is no underlying cause for the recent upswing in mishaps, saying that they indicate systemic problems in the military aviation community.
“Admiral, I appreciate your dedication to get to the root cause, but I don’t buy that ― that it is merely just individual incidences,” he told Grosklags. “If you have vehicular accidents that occur at a particular intersection repeatedly, they each have their own story. But, at times, there is something wrong with the intersection.”
Rep. Niki Tsongas, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, also voiced concern about the growing number of mishaps.
Grosklags detailed several areas where the Navy plans to invest in fiscal year 2018 and 2019 to try to drive those totals down.
“Things that will help us get after the potential causes are making sure that our maintainers have the tools and equipment they need to maintain the aircraft to the best of their ability, making sure that the material condition of those aircraft, in terms of spare parts and readiness on the flightline, is in absolute maximum condition, and making sure that our air crew have the requisite number of hours to make sure they are trained for the missions that they are being asked to fly,” he said.
But he couldn’t directly tie recent mishaps — including the tragic F/A-18F Super Hornet crash near Naval Air Station Key West this March, which killed two naval aviators — to any of those potential causes.
Turner pointed out that more military service members have died in aircraft mishaps over the past year than in Afghanistan, including a three-and-a-half-week period this year where 16 service members died.
“One of the service members was a constituent of mine. Gunnery Sgt. Derik Holley was a 33-year-old enlisted Marine and he was killed while conducting training missions in a CH-53E helicopter, a helicopter that has been in service since the 1970s,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for aviation, said the Marine Corps investigates every mishap and that it, like the other services, is pouring more money into readiness, specifically to its aviation depots, for spare parts and to increase flying time for pilots.
“The CH-53 Echo, in particular, we are still executing our max funds to reset that airplane on both the East and West Coast and in a few other areas in the Pacific and up in Oregon,” he said.
The service is also upping flight hours for pilots, going from the 2016 average of 13.5 hours per pilot in a month to the 19.3 hours an average pilot flew in March 2018.
But Rudder noted that the Military Times article brought to light the rising number of Class C mishaps, or accidents that cost between $50,000 to $500,000 or resulted in lost work days due to injury. He attributed that growth to ongoing high operational tempo coupled with an inexperienced maintainer corps at aviation depots, a problem that the Marine Corps has been trying to address by giving re-enlistment bonuses to experienced maintainers.
“For instance, if you are a collateral duty inspector, a collateral duty QAR or quality assurance representative now, you have a separate MOS,” he said. “And if you re-enlist with that designator, you get an extra $20,000 kicker and you stabilize, you will be in that squadron for another two years.”
The Navy’s problems are similar, with the rate of Class C mishaps increasing, said Rear Adm. Scott Conn, head of the service’s air warfare division.
The number of more serious Class A and B mishaps have remained stable, he said. But special attention must be paid to cases where there is loss of life, like the Key West crash, so that corrective actions are put in place to prevent such incidents from happening again.
“We can always replace the airplanes, but we can’t replace those sons to their families,” he said.
While Conn said he couldn’t comment directly if pilots are not getting the flight hours they need to do their jobs safely, he pointed to analysis from the Naval Safety Center that shows many mishaps are due to maintenance skill-based errors that are not caught by maintenance supervisors.
“We need to get back to the basics in terms of ensuring those sailors know how to fix the airplane. But it is not just fixing airplanes in hangars, it is fixing airplanes on flightlines while you’re trying to meet a schedule,” he said. And then when you put that flightline on an aircraft carrier ― with other aircraft turning, aircraft taxiing, jet exhaust blowing ― there is a level of experience there and awareness that those sailors need.”
Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition officer, said the service was working to speed up the F-35’s adoption of an auto ground collision avoidance system that could help prevent mishaps upon landing the jet.
“That is a program that we have got funded and we are getting started that we are moving forward to take that step,” he said.
Some of the later post-Block 40 F-16s already use a similar system, and it has activated seven times — saving eight lives, according to Air Force estimates. Bunch said the service wants to start a program to retrofit older F-16s with that capability.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.