WASHINGTON — Military aviation accidents have killed 224 pilots or aircrew, destroyed 186 aircraft and cost more than $11.6 billion since 2013 — and many aviators believe those numbers will keep rising, a congressional commission established to investigate those crashes has found.
The bipartisan National Commission on Military Aviation Safety was established by Congress “to make an assessment of the causes contributing to military aviation mishaps” after a string of deadly military crashes in 2018.
The commission conducted confidential interviews with thousands of military pilots, maintainers, aircrew and ground crew and looked at five years of accident data from 2013 to 2018 to get a better understanding about why the non-combat crashes were occurring.
McClatchy obtained a copy of the commission’s report, which was publicly released later on Thursday.
“You’d like to think after 18 months we came up with some silver bullet recommendations,” Army Gen. Richard Cody, chairman of the commission, said in an interview with McClatchy. “But it’s a whole bunch of things that are out of balance.”
What they did hear repeatedly from pilots and maintainers was that the situation had not improved.
“We went to 80 different places, 200 different units,” said Cody, who over his 36-year military career flew more than 5,000 hours in Army helicopters.
“They all worried about being the unit that was going to have the next accident. Almost every interview.”
Training cutbacks have also taken a toll and could hurt aviation safety down the road, pilots told the commissioners.
“The pilots were demoralized by not being able to fly enough, the maintainers were demoralized by not having parts,” said Healing, a former board member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
‘My kids don’t know who I am’
Unpredictable funding, coupled with back-to-back demands for military aircraft to respond to the invasion of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, Russian aggression in Europe and calls to increase presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counter China have taken a toll, the report found.
The 2013 budget reductions known as sequestration cut personnel, flight hours and depot maintenance and required the aviation community to do more with less. In the years that followed, thousands of experienced aviators and maintainers left military service for commercial aviation despite being offered sizable retention bonuses to stay.
Their departures have further increased the workload on those who have remained.
“We see human factors and an increase in mishaps,” another Air Force senior maintainer said. They don’t have experience and are tired. They are tired and are crying for help. The response is shut up and color.”
“My kids don’t know who I am,” said one Marine Corps aviator. “They don’t know when I am going to be home. That stuff leads to the burnout and distraction while flying.”
Lacking basic skills
Maintainers, who repair and keep the aircraft fight ready, told the commission of an increased reliance on simulators to make up for a lack of hands-on training or trainers.
Some new maintainers could not even identify basic tools to open up aircraft because the computer-based training program used to graduate them “removed the panel with a click of the mouse,” the commissioners reported.
“Coming out of the schoolhouse, most (new maintainers) don’t know the difference between a Phillips head and a standard screwdriver,” a senior Marine Corps maintainer told the commission.
“We are teaching basic tools now,” a different Air Force noncommissioned officer told the commissioners. “A lot don’t know what a ratchet set is. If you ask for a ratchet set, they bring a socket.”
The commission’s report comes as the federal government is facing additional budgetary pressures. The budget deficit and the immediate domestic spending needs driven by the COVID-19 pandemic likely mean the Pentagon will be facing flat budgets again for the next several years, two defense budget experts said.
Whether that means aviation accidents will again spike depends on the spending choices the Defense Department makes, they said.
“I think it is an absolute certainty that cuts will come from existing aircraft and operations and maintenance accounts,” said Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps captain and military fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “When this happens, maintenance issues will be deferred and we will unfortunately see readiness rates fall and mishaps increase. It shouldn’t be this way, but the business of the Pentagon is buying weapons.”