Home » Aviation » Recent Fatal Navy, Marine Aviation Crashes Are Symptoms of Overworked Forces, Officials Say

Recent Fatal Navy, Marine Aviation Crashes Are Symptoms of Overworked Forces, Officials Say

A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) prepares to takeoff while transiting the Bab al-Mandeb Strait aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), April 1, 2018. US Marine Corps Photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Investigations into a recent string of fatal aviation mishaps across the joint force are ongoing, but Navy and Marine Corps leaders said the spate of events clearly points to an overworked force, two officers told USNI News this morning.

Speaking on a panel at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2018 symposium, Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Glenn Walters said the joint force is still conducting official reviews of all the recent incidents: a March 14 crash of a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet near Naval Air Station Key West that killed both aircrew; a March 15 crash of an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter in Western Iraq that killed seven airmen onboard; an April 3 crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter in California that killed all four Marines onboard; an April 3 crash of an Air Force F-16 that killed the pilot; and an April 6 crash of an Army AH-64E Apache near Fort Campbell that killed two soldiers. But he added that, at the service level, leaders are already talking about their concerns that so many aviators are dying not at the hands of the enemy but from mishaps during training and routine missions.

“Do we talk about it? We talk about it every day. Obviously you don’t want to react too quickly, until you have some root causes,” he told USNI News when asked how the Marine Corps was responding to the fatal and nonfatal crashes in recent weeks.
“Each mishap is a little bit different, each has a different cause, and if you look at how we train and how we communicate with our aviators, the lessons learned, the very painful lessons learned from all these mishaps, make us change. And sometimes it’s going back to the basics, which I think we will and we have. Aviation, much like our ships, has been stressed over the last 15, 16 years, as we utilize them two or three times what our planned utilization was going to be. A lot of it is getting new iron out there. A lot of it is providing time, providing time for our commanders and our pilots to practice the art of professional aviation. And that is where we can help. We’ve actually said no to a few things where they wanted ‘X’ number of aircraft to go to a place in the world and we said no, we need building time, and we managed that at the [air] wing and the [Marine Expeditionary Force] level.”

Vice Adm. Bill Merz, the Navy’s deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems, said during the panel that not just naval aviation but also the surface force, the submarine force and other units around the globe are stretched thin today.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the "Blacklions" of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213 launches from USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) during exercise Saxon Warrior 2017.

An F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned to the “Blacklions” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 213 launches from USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) during exercise Saxon Warrior 2017. US Navy Photo

Speaking of last year’s two fatal surface ship collisions that killed 17 sailors, Merz said “those collisions were the indicator that we’re at the breaking point on stressing the fleet, and it’s not just contained to the surface navy. They had a crucible event, but it gave us pause to look at all elements of naval operations. I made reference to the aviation readiness. The attack submarine maintenance. Every component of the Navy is struggling under sustaining the operational pace and the resourcing environment we’ve been living through. So this is all evidence for reducing operations, increasing resources, looking at training, looking at the pipelines, leveraging trainers, leveraging gaming techniques, leveraging the other services – it’s all on the table. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves as we go forward, and as I said earlier, the silver lining is the trajectory is very positive.”

Merz noted that about 170 recommendations came forward in the aftermath of the two collisions, through a Navy Secretary-commissioned Strategic Readiness Review and a Fleet-led Comprehensive Review of Recent Surface Force Incidents. A comprehensive report outlining which recommendations Navy leadership has accepted and how the service will begin to implement them is set for release next month, Merz said, and he declined to get into any specifics.

However, he did say that addressing the Navy’s can-do culture that contributed to being stretched so thin was a top priority for the service.

“We’ve always been a can-do Navy, and that comes with some risk when the expectation is that you do regardless and at all costs. And these folks out there won’t let you down, so it’s on us to create an environment that they understand there’s two sides to that equation: if they’re not ready to go, you need to say so.”

A U.S. Marine AV-8B Harrier II aircraft assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced) takes off during a Stinger trainer launch simulator aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7) on March 23, 2018. US Marine Corps Photo

In an April 5 press conference at the Pentagon, Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie declined to call the recent aviation deaths a “wave” or a “crisis” but said the joint force is studying each one.

“It’s never normal when servicemen and women lose their lives. And I think that’s a tremendous tragedy. So, certainly, that’s not normal. And our response to it is never normal. We look very hard, through a well-established procedure of examining each mishap. So, no, it’s not normal. We look hard at it,” he said, when pushed to comment on whether the crashes were considered an increase in fatal mishaps or a normal part of military operations.
“We look for causality. Was it a single incident? Was it systemic? Is it related to something we’re doing across the entire fleet, either, be it the entire fleet of that type, model, series aircraft, or something in the training of the aviators that are flying the platforms? Or is it a maintenance issue? We work very hard to uncover all those things, to look both individually at each accident, each mishap, as well as linkages between the two.”

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    But where would the heirs to Orwell be without their forever war?

    “We have always been at war with Eastasia”

  • Western

    I could not conclude from the article that a contributing factor is “overworked forces.” I did see some hinting about commands having unrealistic expectations.
    Still not sure you can make a leap from ship collisions to aircraft falling out of the sky.
    In root cause analysis, you look for change. What’s different?

  • JohnByron

    Can’t senior military leadership separate the need to whine about money from their real jobs?

  • publius_maximus_III

    “Aviation, much like our ships, has been stressed over the last 15, 16 years, as we utilize them two or three times what our planned utilization was going to be. A lot of it is getting new iron out there.”

    Speaking of a not-so-recent fatal crash, the one of a Marine KC-130T (Lockheed Martin) in clear air at cruising altitude over MS last summer, this statement appears to be applicable. All on board were lost. Recent action by Congress to expedite funding to change out propellers on this older fleet of C-130’s, both shared and grounded for almost a year by the USMC and USN, appears to tip the hand of the crash investigator findings. No report has been issued to date. The aircraft split into two sections just forward of the wings, in line with the props.

    • Isa Akhbar

      #4 threw a blade, took out the entire aircraft. Extremely rare event with the -130 fleet, only one I’ve ever heard of in decades. Depot maintenance being looked at.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Is there a report out yet, or is this from your personal sources?

        • Isa Akhbar

          Personal source who’s seen the Safety Investigation Board report. I don’t think anything’s been released publicly yet.

        • Secundius

          I don’t if this helps any, but try: ANS Aircraft accident Lockheed KC-130T Hercules Itta Bena, MS. Near the bottom of page, additional sources are mentioned. If that’s the Accident you’re talking about.

          ( https: // aviation-safety .net/ database/ record. php?id=20170710-0 )

          • publius_maximus_III

            Thanks, but nothing new. All sources from 2017.

  • Duane

    The comments made by senior officers blaming accidents on overwork, long before any accident investigations are completed, are inappropriate.

    Military aviation, even outside of combat, has always been a dangerous occupation. Whatever stresses our fliers are under today is nothing compared to the stresses of real air war where the other side gets to shoot back, as in Vietnam, Korea, and especially WW Two. If someone wants to whine about stress, let them compare their stress to the stress, and far worse, suffered by Eighth Air Force bomber crews in Europe, where 20% of all who served were KIA or captured, and few were expected to survive the minimum 25 missions required to rotate off the line back in 1943-44 before we finally had escort fighters with enough range to protect the bombers all the way to the targets.

    In WW2, the USAAF alone suffered 13,621 air crew fatalities in the continental US (i.e., non combat, mostly training and ferry flights), not including Naval losses.

    If root causes to these recent accidents are found, then fix them … but no more whining about stress.

    • Leon

      Agree! With all the modern systems on the fighters of today, most of the flying is done by the computer. Unfortunately, what is considered stress today was thought of as a “nothing” during WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Yes, flying is stressful. Just getting through TSA is stressful. But NOT the same as during a shooting war.

  • David C

    There’s likely to be similar reasons for increased aviation incidents and the SWOs crashing their ships. Let’s see, less training, increased cannibalization rates, increased ops tempo, fewer E7s & E8s on the hangar deck, flag officers always saying we can do the mission, and a political structure unwilling to pay for what they want done. What could possibly go wrong?

    • Secundius

      Or just maybe the US Navy is having the same problems the US Air Force is facing!/? A “Pilot Shortfall” of Trained Aviators to the Airline Industries…

    • Leon

      The political structure, as you say it, gave the military 100’s of millions more than what was requested by the pentagon in the last budget. I think the problem lays with the joint chiefs and there staff. They really don’t know what’s going on. They live in a bubble of their own making. Especially the Marines, they just keep going along until things fall of the road or out of the air.

      • David C

        Leon, feel free to spread the blame around, no one is going to argue. But the salient point regarding funding is the affect sequestration had on the military. It negatively impacted just about everything the military was tasked to do.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    So, is there evidence the pilots and/or flight crews were ‘overworked’? That’s a pretty broad statement. I’m not denying it, I’m just asking for some proof.

  • vincedc

    I suspect that cutting back on flight hours is going to be a contributing factor. It seemed like the first response to every budget crisis was to cut training. The latest budget act was too late to prevent these problems.

    • Frank Blangeard

      It is hard to imagine that more flight hours would result in fewer accidents. If you were to graph flight hours vs. accidents I think that the line on the graph would show a positive correlation between flight hours and accidents. Some of the recent accidents took place during training.

      • Secundius

        I suspect that Doubling and/or even Tripling “Time In Service” requirements also plays into the Accident Rates…

        • old guy

          Very astute.Your usual incisive thought.

  • old guy

    I disagree with sone of the responses.My personal feeling is that a flawed training plan, reduced maintenance attention, reduced threat awareness and examples of of poor leadership are at the core. What is needed is a tune up in LEADERSHIP. My contacts (in and out of my family) suggest this. Not easy, but vital.

  • b2

    “Marine Corps Gen. Glenn Walters said the joint force…” I accept that the writers for USNI quote these Marines verbatim. “Joint Force”? Wait General, you must mean the Department of the Navy, right? Look at the title of the article- “Navy and Marine Aviation”. You mean “Naval Aviation”, right? Where is the Department of the Navy, or is it Department of the Marine Corps?

    The US Marine Corps aviation safety record has been higher than the rest of the services for their own specific issues over more than just these mishaps in the past 6 months. USMC aviation problems go back 5 or more years (Class A/100K hours). Glad to see them reporting physiological episodes and agreeing they are pervasive. Remember General Walters predecessor who claimed PE wasn’t a big factor in Marine TACAIR safety issues, right here on USNI news? – wrong…. IMO Marine leadership are seeking cover with/from US Naval Aviation and the rest of DoD aviation at the same time… I expect better.

    The underlying aviation safety dilemma for this age, IMO, is paucity of flight time- especially for TACAIR.
    Might be the same for rotary wing aircraft also because it seems to me most helo mishaps and tiltrotor are due human failure (IE-pilot error) when all is said and done. The Navy/Marine aviators of today seem to accumulate 60-70% of what we used to get flying in the olden days… The material condition- maint/age ect. are often contributors to that human failure (IE-inflight stress=bad choices), but experience and flight time are proven to be “very mitigating” to that form of stress… No one could have the cool of a Sully Sullenberger without thousands of hours of F-4 Phantom time behind them…. Sure, trainers are good but not the same as actual flight time, despite realism… You can only get additional flight time by increasing operating and training budgets for more flight time and that’s easy to do IF you have the budget, but then you end up with more aircraft undergoing depot events (aircraft out of service AWM) and that seems what is driving the lack of flight time or so they claim…. This is not an easy circle to break unless all factors are attacked concurrently- budget wise and culture wise… At least that is my experience from close observation of Naval Aviation for 40 years… The devil is in the details of course…

  • hollygreen9

    My time in naval aviation, (22 years) had me believing that most aircraft incidents were due to shoddy maintenance, and the “can do” done a lot of good folks out of their lives. My last CO told m that I was not POLITICAL enough, as I would not sign off DOWN aircraft so he could make his beloved flight schedule.