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Report on military aviation crashes faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue'

Report on military aviation crashes faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue'
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More than 6,000 military aviation accidents have killed 224 pilots or aircrew, destroyed 186 aircraft and cost $11.6 billion since 2013, according to a new congressionally commissioned report released publicly on Thursday.

The report came from the bipartisan National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, established by Congress in 2018 to examine past mishaps and make recommendations to the president, lawmakers and the Pentagon on ways to avoid upticks in deadly aircraft crashes like the one that prompted the eight-person commission.

After speaking with thousands of military pilots, aircrew, ground crew and maintainers, and reviewing accident data from 2013 to 2018, investigators “came away deeply troubled by the chronic fatigue we saw among these brave servicemembers,” a summary of the report states.

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The mishaps, which were not combat related and occurred during training or routine operations, were largely blamed on the breakneck operations tempo of the military, which “is leading to unsafe practices and driving experienced aviators and maintainers out of the force.”

Service members, when asked what they think will cause the next mishap, repeatedly pointed to insufficient flight hours, shrinking skill levels, inadequate and rushed training programs, distracting and excessive administrative duties, spotty funding, risky maintenance practices and a relentless work schedule.

The problems appeared to create a perfect storm beginning in the summer of 2017, when the military services experienced a string of high-profile crashes over 12 months that called into question the overall state of military aviation safety.

Among the mishaps was a Marine Corps KC-130 tanker that came apart in the sky over Mississippi, killing 15 Marines and one Navy corpsman; an Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter that crashed into the ocean during a night exercise off the coast of Hawaii, killing all five aboard; a Navy C-2A Greyhound crash into the Philippine Sea that killed three; a downed Air Force Thunderbird F-16C in Nevada that killed the pilot; a T-38 crash that killed a pilot in Texas; an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crash in Iraq that killed all seven on the flight; and a Puerto Rico Air National Guard C-130H cargo plane that crashed on its retirement flight shortly after takeoff in Georgia, killing all nine aboard.

The commissioners found that training cutbacks was one major factor that led to the crashes and also threatened to affect future pilots. They said they learned of numerous students who completed a rushed initial training program, were then pushed through follow-on training by less-experienced instructors and eventually became instructors and leaders themselves.

“Newly trained pilots and maintainers are reporting to operational units without basic skills,” the report states. “Flight hours are being replaced with simulator hours, yet the simulators are often outdated, out of service, or unavailable.”

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This has led to “a cohort of aviators who have inadequate training and lack the skills and experience they will need as they advance through their careers,” the commission found.

“This seems irreversible,” a Navy squadron commander told them. “I have increasingly unqualified people to teach the new generation who are then going to be less qualified to train the next generation.”

Without action, “inexperience will become institutionalized and jeopardize the safety of a future generation of aviators,” the report states.

Aircraft maintainers, meanwhile, had similarly degraded skills as services failed to address the problem over time.

Aircrews and maintainers are routinely saddled with additional duties not related to aviation but nonetheless are seen as more valuable than their primary duties in order to receive a promotion, the commissioners found.

Fully qualified aviation maintainers frequently said they were sidetracked to other assignments, such as drill instructor or recruiter, which were required for promotion. But after spending years absent from their maintenance duties, they found their skills had atrophied.

In addition, the maintainers are increasingly relying on simulators in place of hands-on training. That’s led to new maintainers sometimes not being able to identify even basic tools.

On one site visit, the commission heard a story about a recently graduated maintainer who was instructed to remove an aircraft panel.

"The maintainer did not know which tool to use because the computer-based training program removed the panel with a click of the mouse,” the report states.

The lack of skills is further compounded by never-ending demands for military aircraft to respond to back-to-back and overlapping missions, including the ongoing Afghanistan war, the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, Russian aggression and increasing Chinese military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Aviators told the commission that such demands deny them the time needed for training to keep their war-fighting skills current.

“I can’t train to fight Russia and China. I need relief from hauling crap around the [area of responsibility] so that I can actually train,” said one Air Force commander.

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Furthermore, aviators have increasingly been asked to do more with fewer hands on deck, leading to chronic fatigue and burnout.

“My kids don’t know who I am,” due to deployments, exercises and constant long days, one Marine Corps aviator said. “They don’t know when I am going to be home. That stuff leads to the burnout and distraction while flying.”

A senior Air Force maintainer in an F-16 wing repeatedly described those he worked with as “tired” and “sleep deprived.”

“We see human factors and an increase in mishaps. They don’t have experience and are tired. They are tired and are crying for help. The response is shut up and color,” the maintainer said.

Another senior Air Force officer told the commission that one of his staff sergeants left the Air Force to be an automobile mechanic. “They’re burned out.”

A lack of consistent Defense Department funding also has a hand in the accidents and “is especially pernicious to military aviation safety.”

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Though the Pentagon received more than $718 billion in fiscal 2020, a $32 billion increase over the previous year, Congress routinely has not been able to pass a budget by the start of the new fiscal year. Instead, lawmakers pass continuing resolutions (CR) to bridge the gap, which keeps spending at the previous years’ levels until the final bill is worked out.

But this forces the Pentagon to take from vital pilot training and maintenance programs to pay for the annual rise in payroll and military health care costs that are not covered under a continuing resolution.

By the time a unit’s funding is restored in the last part of a fiscal year, no matter the amount “it simply cannot make up for lost training and deferred maintenance,” and “cannot reverse the impact of months of insufficient flying hours, missing parts, and deferred maintenance,” the report states.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac ThornberryWilliam (Mac) McClellan ThornberryUnnamed law enforcement banned under the new NDAA Lobbying world Senate poised to override Trump's defense bill veto MORE (R-Texas) said the report makes clear “the damage that insufficient and inconsistent funding has on the military.”

“Continuing resolutions especially have a real and corrosive effect on aviation readiness. They make the jobs of our pilots and mechanics more difficult and dangerous. Members should consider those consequences seriously the next time they are asked to support a wasteful — and now we know dangerous — CR,” Thornberry said in a statement.

Armed Services Committee members John GaramendiJohn Raymond GaramendiAir Force aborts ICBM test before launch Biden offers traditional address in eerie setting Biden to meet with bipartisan lawmakers on infrastructure MORE (D-Calif.) and Doug LambornDouglas (Doug) LambornThe Navy's reading program undermines America's security GAO to review decision to move Space Command to Alabama Colorado presses Biden to reverse Trump Space Command move MORE (R-Colo.) also released a joint statement calling on Congress to “do its part to ensure that our military receives timely and consistent funding by passing the appropriations bills every year. The damage inflicted by continuing resolutions cannot be overstated.”

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To attempt to alleviate the issues, the commission gave 24 recommendations including the setup of a Joint Safety Council that reports to the deputy secretary of Defense and is staffed by safety chiefs from each military branch.

Commissioners also suggested that Congress and future administrations “stop using continuing resolutions to fund national security, military readiness, and aviation safety,” and that Congress should task the Congressional Budget Office to “study and report on the negative impacts of continuing resolutions on military aviation readiness and safety.”

In addition, they said, the services should ensure aviation units have sufficient administrative personnel to allow aviators and maintainers to concentrate on their primary mission.