The National Commission on Military Aviation Safety (NCMAS) has published a report analyzing military mishaps for the last decade or so. For those of you who, like me, have no idea who/what this organization is, it is a commission established by Congress in 2019 to examine the rates and causes of military aviation mishaps.
The report identifies the many causes in great detail though they have a tendency, I think, to emphasize funding over other causes. Funding is an issue, certainly, but is a secondary one.
I’m not going to bother listing all the findings of the report. They’re what you’d expect and you can read the details for yourself, if you’re so inclined. Instead, I want to pick out a few key aspects and apply my own analysis.
The following table from the report shows the combined Class A-C mishap rates for the various services and shows that the Army and Air Force mishap rates from 2007 – 2018 have held steady, on average. In contrast, the Navy rate increased steadily from 15 in 2007 to 24 in 2018 and the Marine rate increased from 11 in 2007 to 32 in 2018.
My takeaways and analysis for the increased mishap rates for the Navy and Marines:
Simulators – As supposed budget constraints (a fraudulent meme, by the way) have been imposed, simulator usage has increased in an attempt to reduce expenditures. However, as simulator usage has increased, so too have mishaps. Simulators are simply not a viable substitute for the sheer overwhelming physical sensations of actual flight. A simulator is a nice way to review emergency procedures but it is not an effective method of learning to fly. There is a reason why naval aviators qualify on the boat, not on simulators.
Monthly Flight Hours – Monthly flight hours have been severely cut back. Minimum flight hour waivers are now commonplace.
Navy aviators said they are not getting 11 hours per month unless they are preparing to deploy. Although the Marine Corps’ goal for CH-53E pilots is 15 flight hours per month, one pilot said, “We too often are in the single digits for flight hours per pilot per month, a dangerously low number of flight hours to be decent at a very difficult trade.” Many Marine Corps aviators said they averaged about five hours per month. (1, p.61)
Waivers – There are only two solutions to insufficient flight hours: increase the hours or use waivers. Which do you think the Navy chooses?
With fewer flight hours, pilots risk losing currency. The Commission found evidence that the Services have increased their reliance on waivers to operate despite currency and proficiency shortcomings. (1, p.61)
Do you recall the last time a discussion of waivers came up? That’s right. It was during the aftermath of the two Burke collisions with cargo ships when it was found that numerous required certifications were being routinely waived. How did routine waiver use turn out then?
What happens when waivers are routinely used? The report put it quite nicely:
The proliferation of waivers represents a new normal and acceptance of degraded standards. The Commission found senior leaders and safety officials unaware to what appears to be an erosion of safety. (1, p.62)
Waivers represent failure. Failure to adhere to standards. Failure to make the hard choices. Failure to correct known, on-going problems. Failure of leadership. Failure.
Pressure – The pressure in the military to make do and always respond in the affirmative is enormous and has been cited in almost every plane and ship incident report. ‘Gung ho’ makes a great advertising slogan on a recruiting poster but a lousy safety philosophy involving multi-billion dollar ships and multi-hundreds of million dollar aircraft. Unceasing ‘can do’ inevitably turns on itself and results in mishaps and fatalities as we’re witnessing over and over again, today.
The immediate result of ‘can do’ attitudes is the acceptance of shortcuts. In the report, the Marines were identified as the biggest culprit in maintenance and procedural shortcuts. It’s hardly surprising then, that the Marines also demonstrated the biggest rise in mishap rate.
The Navy and Marine mishap rate increases are not a random occurrence. They are not an Act of God that can’t be controlled. They are not something that just happens, like catching a cold. Instead, they are a conscious choice by Navy and Marine leadership to have more mishaps. Wait, what now? No way! No Navy or Marine leader would make a conscious decision to have more mishaps, you say? Well, you’re wrong. No decision IS a decision. The decision to do nothing about the ever-increasing use of waivers IS a decision to have and accept more mishaps. The decision to do nothing about the use of simulators over actual flight hours IS a decision to have and accept more mishaps. The decision to do nothing about the increased use of shortcuts and maintenance deficiencies IS a decision to have and accept more mishaps. Make no mistake. Navy and Marine leaders have chosen to have and accept more mishaps.
(1)National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, Report to the President and the Congress of the United States, 1-Dec-2020