A look at military aviation training accidents

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Last month a congressionally-mandated study confirmed what many sensed. That military aviation training accidents are on the rise. In a five year period, more than 6,000 accidents killed 198 service members. With analysis, Project on Government Oversight national security reporter Jason Paladino joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Jason, good to have you back.

Jason Paladino: Thanks for having me Tom.

Tom Temin: So what’s your takeaway from this report? First of all, give us the big numbers that it found which were really big numbers and surprising numbers.

Jason Paladino: Yeah, I mean, you just mentioned probably the most striking number, 198 service members killed in the 6,000 accidents at a cost of $9.4 billion. And that’s just looking at the 2013 to 2018 period. And what’s really striking too is just in the period of time where the study was taking place, which was 2019 until December of last year, another 26 lives and 29 aircraft were lost, which the commissioners really highlight to just show the urgency of this.

Tom Temin: And this number of overall incidents, more than 6,000, that means most of them are non fatal. But when you have that many close calls or wingtip to wingtip, or whatever it is that characterizes them, that indicates a systemic issue. It sounds like that would then lead to the culmination of the worst possible case, which is members killed in catastrophic crashes.

Jason Paladino: Right. So there’s these three classifications: Class A, Class B, and Class C mishaps. Class A are the most serious that usually make headlines where someone is killed or the aircraft is a total loss. But then there’s this sort of less serious incidents, which are Class B and Class C. And one thing that really alarmed the commissioners was the most dramatic spike was in class C accidents. And they interview folks in this study. And what they found is that a Class C mishap is only inches or seconds from a Class A mishap. It’s really more about luck than anything. And so when you see this big spike in Class C mishaps, you know something’s going wrong.

Tom Temin: I can understand that. I mean, as a motorcycle rider, one of the advice pieces you hear all the time is if you’re having a lot of near misses or close calls or having to slam on the brakes too often, you’re going to get in a Class A crash at some point. So it seems like they’ve got a systemic up and down problem that they’ve got to get after the Class C in order to get after the Class A. Would that be an accurate way to characterize it?

Jason Paladino: That’s exactly right. And that’s sort of their conclusion that they arrive at is that in order to bring down the Class A mishap rates and to prevent future Class A mishaps, you have to tackle the increase in Class Cs.

Tom Temin: And what’s causing the increase in Class C, this mass number of incidents, and is there any way to characterize them in general?

Jason Paladino: So not briefly, but..

Tom Temin: Well take your time, we can go a couple of minutes here.

Jason Paladino: So they point out a combination of factors that are leading to this. The first one is one that I think Project on Government Oversight has identified as a serious problem is that you’ve got these legacy aircraft, aircraft that were designed in the 50s, fielded in the 60s and 70s that are still flying. Then you get the Pentagon investing in the replacements for these aircrafts. So they say, okay you’ve got this helicopter, it’s getting very old, we’re gonna replace it with this new helicopter. The new helicopter is inevitably delayed by 10 or 15 years, and is massively over budget. And in the meantime, the legacy aircraft that was supposed to stop flying is now in shambles. And when they announced the production of the new aircraft, they start shutting down the production lines for parts for the old aircraft. So the older aircraft which is now having to fly 15 years longer than it’s resourced for has to rely on methods like cannibalization, where if you’ve ever visited any of these hangars where they keep these old aircraft, the maintenance guys and women, they call them hangar queens, which is the aircraft that since you can’t get new parts, you just slowly start stripping an old aircraft of parts and using that as your source parts, which is very problematic.

Tom Temin: Now the commercial aviation world has old aircraft and has a much better safety record than the military. So were there lessons from that side of the world?

Jason Paladino: One of the commissioners has experience in that world and was actually an NTSB board member. And they wanted to sort of compare the two. And what they found is that it’s a little bit apples and oranges because with military aircraft when you’re designing them, you’re obviously going to be maximizing the lethality of the aircraft, which may take away some of the safety aspects of the aircraft. However, when they went through all of these military aviation accidents, they found that that compromise was often not the cause of the accident. And so in that way they can be compared. And what they found is that commercial aviation is always getting safer. And what that means is that if you look at a chart of mishaps in commercial aviation, it’s often just a consistent line that is decreasing. That’s not what you’re seeing in military aviation, you’re seeing lines that are either flat or rising. And so they’re basically looking at what safety standards, what data analysis is the commercial aviation world using that the DoD could absolutely use to improve their safety.

Tom Temin: Sure. And we talked about the boneyard and ageing aircraft aspect of this, what about training and whether people have enough flight time and enough simulator time before they get into some of these equipment and are really qualified? Is that an issue?

Jason Paladino: Yeah, I mean, all these problems are interrelated. Because you have these issues with part availability, where they just aren’t able to get these parts for these old aircraft. And because these old aircraft are just constantly needing pretty deep levels of maintenance, you have pilots that are only getting a few hours a month in flight time. If you talk to any old school, military aviator, they’ll tell you that they were getting at least 30-40-50 hours a month in aircraft. And that’s what you need to remain proficient. Today, if you talk to, especially in some of these older helicopter squadrons, they’re lucky if they’re getting 10 hours a month. And that means that these pilots are less confident in emergency situations. And then sort of the tragedy of this is when one of those pilots does crash, the official reason for that crash is pilot error. And if you think about it, that pilot was not set up for success. And so it’s easy for the military to blame the pilot. But what’s great about this commission report is they really dig into the sort of systemic issues that lead to those pilot air crashes.

Tom Temin: And so then what does the Pentagon do next? They can’t speed up the production of new aircraft, they have problems with people mustering out faster than they can replace them, both maintainers and pilots.

Jason Paladino: Right. And they have a couple of recommendations that I think are fairly common sense. One is that they found that it’s almost right now impossible to compare data between the services. And in order to look at these high level trends, they wanted to create a new position in the Secretary of Defense’s office, which is sort of a safety czar. Someone whose job it is to collate all that data to make sure that every service is collecting data in the correct way. And then to sort of like implement recommendations based on that data. The other thing that this study really focused on was people are burnt out, both maintainers and pilots. But there are retention issues. There are pilots and maintainers who are finding themselves with 10 extra duties on the side of their normal job. So you’ve got a guy who should be focusing all his time on maintaining aircraft, he suddenly has 10 other completely unrelated duties, like training other people in hazardous materials, doing paperwork. And what happens is these guys end up working 14-15 hour days, and they get burnt out. And so one of the recommendations is to make sure that if you are a maintainer, you are primarily maintaining aircraft. Imagine that.

Tom Temin: Yeah, alright. And I guess if you’re a pilot, you are mainly spending your time in a cockpit.

Jason Paladino: Right. So this is the personnel issue, but these problems are all related. And if you fix the personnel issue, that’s great. But if Pentagon procurement of new aircraft continues the way it’s been going, we’re gonna see more of this problem, because you’re gonna have these sort of boondoggle projects like the F-35, that are billed as it’s going to be easier to maintain, you’re going to need half the maintenance staff, you can save money on maintenance. And then what happens when these things actually come around is they ended up needing more maintenance time. And because of the fancy marketing of these companies, the Pentagon has its aviation maintenance staff. Let me just read you a anonymous quote. This is a quote from a F-35 squadron commander, and he told the commission, “the bean counters got it wrong, they said the F-35 is going to be easier to maintain, they will need less maintenance. These aircraft are taking a lot more man hours than previously thought. But they’ve already appropriated smaller staffing.”

Tom Temin: Well, yeah, lots of questions then ahead for DoD. And just quickly, has this report, in your view, in your observation of this, had some impact at the Pentagon?

Jason Paladino: It’s hard to say. Basically, as part of the mandate for this report, the DoD has to respond. We’ll see how they respond. So just like a GAO report, we should be able to see the response that they give, which of these recommendations they’re going to implement and how. But one thing that I think was unique about this report that I just want to get across is this wasn’t just these commissioners going and talking to Squadron leadership. These guys were holding roundtables with the lowest guy on the totem pole, maintainers. And I think because of that this report is much more honest about the problems and the systemic problems because you’re hearing from the actual wrench turners rather than the sort of bureaucrats.

Tom Temin: Jason Paladino is national security reporter with the Project on Government Oversight. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jason Paladino: Of course. Thanks for having me.

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