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String of military aviation crashes raises questions about safety, training

An Osprey aircraft flies during preview day for the MCAS Miramar Airshow on Sept. 26, 2019, in San Diego.  (Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
By Andrew Dyer San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO – A spate of military aircraft crashes over recent months is again raising questions about the Pentagon’s approach to safety and training across military branches.

In June, six service members died in two Southern California crashes – a Lemoore, California-based F/A-18E pilot on June 3 in San Bernardino County and five Camp Pendleton-based Marines in an MV-22B Osprey that crashed in Imperial County June 8.

The next day, June 9, a San Diego-based MH-60 Seahawk helicopter also crashed in Imperial County, with all aboard surviving with minor injuries.

The Marine Osprey crash was the second such fatal crash this year. Four Marines were killed in March when their Osprey crashed during a training exercise in Norway.

After the crashes – categorized as “mishaps” by the Pentagon – both the Navy and Marine Corps ordered aviation units to “pause” and “stand down” for one day to conduct additional training and review procedures.

The causes of the crashes remain under investigation. Other than the training pauses, neither the Marines nor the Navy has instituted any changes in the aircraft or operations. A Marine spokesperson told the San Diego Union-Tribune any lessons from the two Osprey crashes would only be implemented after the investigations are complete.

Such investigations often take months. When five San Diego sailors were killed in an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter crash off the coast last August, it took more than eight months to learn that a bad damper hose in the aircraft’s rotor was to blame.

Data from the Naval Safety Command, which tracks Navy and Marine Corps accidents, shows that “class A mishaps” – ones that occur in-flight and cause loss of life, permanent total disability or more than $2.5 million in damage – are up so far this fiscal year.

Priscilla Kirsh, a spokesperson for the Naval Safety Command, said that nine months of data currently show a higher accident rate, which is calculated using the number of accident incidents and total flight hours. However, if the service experiences no further mishaps through September it would be consistent with the last two fiscal years, she said.

The Navy’s rates are calculated using an upper and lower confidence interval – simply put, a rate between the upper and lower intervals would not be statistically significant, according to the service.

For the Navy, with eight class A flight mishaps so far this year, its rate is 1.29 per 100,000 flight hours. For all of 2021, its rate was 1.09 per 100,000 flight hours. Both years’ rates are above the service’s 10-year average of .97 class A mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. They are not statistical outliers, however, according to the Navy’s calculations.

Marine Corps’ flight mishap numbers are also up from the last two years but are also not statistically significant, Navy data shows.

In fiscal year 2022, so far, the Marines are experiencing 2.25 class A mishaps per 100,000 flight hours – almost double the rate of the Navy, data shows. The numbers show a steep increase after two years of well-below-average flight mishap numbers in the Corps – just two mishaps in fiscal year 2020 and none in 2021. The Marine mishap rate is just below its 10-year-average of 2.38 class A flight mishaps per 100,000 flight hours.

Inherent risks

Despite the draw-down from active conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, recent independent reports say aviation safety and training problems have been present for years across the military and have increased.

It’s a reminder that even outside of war, military operations are risky, said Dan Grazier, a defense analyst at the nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight.

“Any kind of military operation is inherently dangerous (and) there are going to be mishaps and people killed in the normal course of business,” Grazier said.

While data for the Navy and Marine Corps shows 2022 mishap rates within its “normal” range, Grazier said they are indicative of a larger aviation safety problem across the services in recent years.

“It’s definitely getting worse,” he said.

Grazier pointed to two recent studies – one from the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and another commissioned by Congress – that found pilots across the military are not getting enough flying hours in their aircraft.

“The lack of flight hours is a big problem,” Glazier said in an interview. “The fact we are buying increasingly complex aircraft is just going to exacerbate the flight-hour problem. The more complex the aircraft, the more training the pilot needs.”

The congressionally mandated report from the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, published in December 2020, made a series of recommendations to the Pentagon for ways to streamline and improve flight safety. It recommended the services allow for more flight time for pilots; stop sending maintenance personnel to assignments outside of their aviation maintenance specialties, and said the Pentagon should establish a Joint Safety Council answerable directly to the defense secretary.

That council was established June 28, according to Army Maj. Charlie Dietz, a spokesperson for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III. The Pentagon will send a detailed implementation plan of the commission’s recommendations to Congress at the end of August.

“The DoD generally concurred with the 25 recommendations within the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety report and all recommendations for Department action are already underway,” Dietz said in an email.

Included in those actions is program budgeting for more flight hours to improve “proficiency and currency for aircrews and maintainers,” Dietz said.

Training and safety problems in the military are not limited to aviation. Seventeen sailors were killed in two ship collisions in the western Pacific in 2017, and investigations showed high work tempo combined with poor maintenance and equipment contributed to those crashes.

In 2020, eight Marines and a sailor were killed when their assault amphibious vehicle broke down and sank near San Clemente Island. Investigations showed the vehicle was in poor condition and the troops were not fully trained in swimming or waterborne evacuation and that Navy and Marine leaders failed to make sure they were prepared to go into the water.

Land-based armored vehicle rollovers have also cost service members’ lives in recent years. In 2021, the Government Accountability Office found that lapses in supervision and training contributed to crashes in the Army and Marine Corps.

Family frustration

For the families affected by these accidents, the Pentagon’s handling of known problems are a continued source of frustration. Sometimes it is the advocacy of these families that finally pushes the military to change.

When Air Force 2nd Lt. Travis Wilkie, 23, of San Diego, was killed in 2019 attempting a risky tandem landing in a T-38C Talon during flight training in Oklahoma, his family pushed the service to ban the maneuver, which involved two jets landing simultaneously, side-by-side. Wilkie’s instructor, Lt. Col. John Kincade, 47, was also killed. In 2020, the Air Force banned the maneuver but allowed students to perform a variation on the formation landing in which two jets would approach the runway but only one would touch down.

In November, at Laughlin Air Force base in Texas, another Air Force pilot in training was killed attempting the modified tandem approach when two instructor pilots failed to establish which of the two jets would be the one to land, and they collided, an Air Force investigation found. Second Lt. Anthony Wentz, 23, was killed and two other pilots were injured.

In May, the Air Force again revised protocols for the tandem approach maneuver, raising the minimum altitude and standardizing radio protocols, according to the Air Force Times.

Don Wilkie, Travis Wilkie’s father, told the Union-Tribune that Wentz should still be alive.

“That (the Air Force) had to change (the protocols) again is evidence they shouldn’t have been doing it,” Wilkie said. “Supposedly, they do not do (tandem landings) in the functional Air Force, so why are they doing it in training?”

The Air Force T-38C is a 1960s-era supersonic jet with relatively short wings that make the aircraft more difficult to control at lower speeds. Since Travis Wilkie’s death in November 2019, three more Air Force pilots have been killed in two separate crashes, including Wentz.

The jet will be replaced by Boeing’s new T-7 Red Hawk. The first production T-7 was unveiled in April, and the first squadron is scheduled to activate in 2024, according to Air Force Magazine.

The families of those killed in the 2020 AAV sinking pressured the Marines into banning the vehicles from waterborne operations completely in 2021, although the service said they could return to the water in a crisis.

Osprey challenges

Technology issues are not limited to old aircraft, said Grazier. Ospreys, which fly both like a helicopter and a propeller-driven aircraft via an advanced tiltrotor function, present unique challenges to pilots.

“With the Osprey, there are known problems,” Grazier said. A crash that killed 19 Marines in 2000 was caused by a phenomenon called “vortex ring state” in which the aircraft descended into its own rotor wash and lost lift.

“The issue wasn’t well known (at the time) and it’s a tricky problem for pilots to deal with,” Grazier said. “But now it is and they can adjust operations and train for it, but if a pilot isn’t getting enough training time, they’re definitely not going to have enough time to react in the cockpit if something goes wrong.”

More than 50 service members have died in MV-22 crashes since the aircraft’s early development period in the 1990s. Since coming into full service in 2007, eight Ospreys have crashed.

The aircraft is flown by the Marine Corps, Air Force and Navy. For the Navy, the latest branch to put the Osprey in operation, the aircraft is a key component in its modern air wing.

The service has spent billions upgrading its aircraft carriers to fly its version of the trillion-dollar F-35 Lightning II, but the jets cannot deploy on carriers unless Ospreys are part of the package, officials have said. That’s because the jet’s engines are too heavy for Navy helicopters to ferry to and from the ships and too large for the service’s older C-2 Greyhound carrier on-board delivery planes.

Over the next several years, the Osprey will replace the Navy’s fleet of C-2s. Ospreys completed their first carrier deployment in February on the San Diego-based Carl Vinson.