A group of aviation experts tasked with getting to the bottom of a surge in deadly military aviation accidents during the last decade came back with its report on Thursday, and there’s a lot that needs fixing.
A confluence of cultural issues, budget shortfalls and a lack of oversight have contributed to a general malaise, according to the report, as well as a rash of deadly and costly mishaps from 2013 to 2018: 198 deaths, 157 aircraft destroyed and $9.41 billion lost.
Despite finding passionate professionals on flight lines around the world, the heads of the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety told reporters, a lack of flight hours, a stressed supply chain, high operational tempo and administrative distractions have left the community in a bit of disrepair.
“What we found was that morale was generally degraded,” Dick Healing, a retired Coast Guard pilot and vice chairman of NCMAS, told reporters in the morning, before he was due to brief the results of the commission’s investigation to members of the House Armed Services Committee.
That period dovetails seamlessly with congressionally-imposed budget sequestration that began in 2013 and was carried on by delayed proper budgets in the following years, but the commission did not blame it entirely on money.
Mandated by the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, NCMAS stood up after Military Times investigation found that deadly mishaps rose 40 percent from 2013 to 2018
What’s going wrong?
Despite recovering that funding, the commission found that aviation units are still not getting enough flight hours, maintenance time and proper parts to keep everything running safely and smoothly, which is a likely contributor to accidents.
About 43 percent of mishaps are caused by human error, he explained, generally because someone didn’t follow procedure to the letter, or properly coordinate with the other aircrew or those on the ground. Another 38 percent were due to environmental factors, like weather and visibility.
The remaining 19 percent were split among organization issues ― among those, worn out parts or lack of proper manning ― and supervision issues, which include superiors making bad judgment calls or not enforcing policies.
Generally, human error is prevented by proficiency ― for example, pilots and aircrew with so much recent experience that they are operating on instinct and able to troubleshoot problems with ease.
But troops told the NCMAS members they, in many cases, they weren’t getting enough flight hours. In the past, the issue had been budget cuts slashing the amount of time they could afford to be in the air.
Now, according to retired Army Gen. Dick Cody, NCMAS chairman it’s more an issue of prioritizing.
Some young pilots are coming out of schoolhouses that lean heavily on hours in a simulator. That’s great for practicing emergency procedures, he said, but not for gaining proficiency in the aircraft.
So in order to get them up to speed, their first units of assignment are spending flight hours closing that gap, rather than spreading them more evenly up through more experienced pilots.
And that, in turn, is resulting in more waivers, or units making exceptions for pilots assigned to missions who are about to fall out of balance with the required number of flight hours they need every 60 days.
“We shouldn’t have pilots being tasked to do missions that have been waivered,” Cody said, adding that there have been “way too many accidents right on the 60-day current limit, and they’re out there flying a mission.”
While mishaps in general were down in 2019, the Navy and Marine Corps saw individual increases, including a 30-percent increase in the Corps.
The commission isn’t sure what caused that spike, Cody said, adding that the service is, anecdotally, “about as a stressed as any of the services that we saw” during their visits to 200 units across 80 installations over the past year and a half.
“We didn’t seen any new [types of] accidents,” he added, explaining that the most common causes of mishaps have largely remained the same.
But he did call out the physical conditions of the Marine Corps aviation community, which has been seen as taking a backseat to its other organizations.
“And some of their facilities were not facilities that we would want young Americans maintaining multi-million dollar aircraft [in],” Cody said.
How to fix the problem
While the report calls for cultural change and budget predictability, two factors that can’t be remedied with the snap of a finger, it does lay out several institutional changes that can happen right away.
Cody’s top recommendation is to start tracking those flight waivers, so that the services know just how common it is for borderline-current pilots to get in the cockpit and those trends can be traced.
Along those same lines, Healing made a plug to create a joint safety council within the defense secretary’s office, reporting directly to the deputy defense secretary, as an authority to centrally track aviation trends, factors and data that can be fed directly to high-level policy and funding decisions.
Such a council “basically gives them the information they need in order to make decisions that can seriously impact aviation safety,” Healing said.
Other remedies will require institutional motivation.
The report focuses heavily on the grinding combination of being overworked, untrained and under-incentivized.
The commission recommends increasing the ceiling on pilot retention bonuses to $100,000 per year. It also recommends boosting manning levels of administrative personnel in aviation units, so that pilots and maintainers don’t get sucked into doing paperwork rather than focusing on their intricate skill sets, which they have reported as a problem.
OPTEMPO a lingering issue
But the last part of the equation might be more difficult to tackle, as combatant commanders continue to request forces. The relentless demand for aviation units to support operations around the world, as they’re becoming more and more strained, is a recipe for disaster, both in safety but also retention of pilots and maintainers.
For example, carrier air wing deployments have stretched from the long-standing six-month underway to nine months or beyond ― and in the case of the aircraft carriers Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower, having only a few months at home before heading out again.
In the Army, downsized aviation brigades are doing back-to-back rotations in Korea and Europe. Doing the same amount, or more with less ― fewer aircraft, fewer personnel, fewer parts ― has become part of the culture.
“And they always say, ‘Will do,’ " Healing said. “People need to understand that there may be a time when they need to say ‘no.’ "
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.