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Less Experienced Maintainers Contribute to Rise in Naval Aviation Mishaps

An F/A-18F attached to the “Flying Eagles” of Strike Fighter Squadron One Two Two (VFA-122), sits on the line at Naval Air Station (NAS) Lemoore, Calif., in December 2005. U.S. Navy photo.

The Navy and Marine Corps found that less experience in their aviation maintenance crews has contributed to a sharp rise in Class C mishaps – often taking place during aircraft towing or repair work – and are taking steps to reverse this trend.

The Navy has settled on a plan to double the length of some enlisted maintainers’ first shore tours, the Marine Corps has revamped its maintainer training and retention and aircraft towing policies, and both services are working together to make better use of near-miss data to find trends and avoid future mishaps before they happen.

Rear Adm. Roy Kelley, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic, said Class C mishaps, which involve $50,000 to $500,000 in damages to aircraft or a nonfatal injury, have doubled in the Navy since 2012.

“We have determined from the Naval Safety Center and the Center for Naval Analyses damage sustained during maintenance is the leading cause of these mishaps, with the analysis pointing towards maintainers that are less experienced,” Kelley said late Thursday afternoon during his opening statement in a hearing of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee.
“The reduced experience is being addressed by doubling the length of orders for shore-based apprentice maintainers from two to four years, enabling them to gain additional experience and qualifications.”

Kelley told reporters after the hearing that two-thirds of the Class C mishaps were related to maintenance. According to written testimony from a previous House Armed Services Committee hearing on aviation safety, from Fiscal Year 2008 to FY 2017, the Navy’s Class C mishap rate rose from about seven and a half per 100,000 flight hours to about 22 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. For the Marine Corps in that same time period, Class C mishaps rose from about 10 to about 27 per 100,000 flight hours, according to the document.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Noah Walker, left, and Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Ashley Tjon, both assigned to the “Dragon Slayers” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 11, performs maintenance on an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter in the hangar bay of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). US Navy photo.

To stop the trend, Kelley said the Navy wants to get enlisted maintainers more experience at the very beginning of their careers, and then help ensure that their expertise is put to best use in their later assignments.

“The difference in the enlisted experience that we have in E-5s, E-6s, is about a year and a half short of what it used to be 10 years ago. So to give you an example, if you had an E-6 that 10 years ago in the same timeframe in their career had 11-and-a-half years of experience, today they would have 10 years,” the admiral said.
“So that difference. Also the fact that we have people that are being assigned, they have helicopter backgrounds and they’re going to F-18 squadrons or vice versa. We’re now clarifying specific qualifications at the Bureau of Naval Personnel through this AMEX (Aviation Maintenance Experience Management) program … It’s not just a matter of what is their rate, as in an AD, an aviation mechanic on an engine – it goes through and talks about what qualifications that person has, and then we look at the squadron and say, what do they need? Well they need an AD-1 that has this particular qualification. So we can match them up and bring the experience levels they need in the squadrons.”

Kelley said a pilot program called AMEX 1 has already taken place, with AMEX 2 coming up to continue testing the experience management tool. The pilot program is taking place at Naval Air Station Lemoore because that is a primary place that aircraft maintainers would go if their first tour was a shore duty.

“Usually we try to send them to sea first, but if it’s a shore-based tour then we try to make it short. That’s why it was two years. As a result, they were being assigned to locations like (Strike Fighter Squadron) VFA-122, the training squadron there in Lemoore, and to AIMD, our maintenance depot that’s located there. They weren’t getting experience (in just two years), and then we were sending them out to sea. So we said, if you really want to get use of those people, give them two more years so … you’ve got a more experienced sailor now in the next unit they go to at sea,” Kelley added, explaining the move from a two-year tour to a four-year tour for aviation maintenance apprentices in their first assignment.

Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Jacob Margraves, assigned to the air department aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), tows an AV-8B Harrier assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 161 (Reinforced) using a towing dolly in the hangar bay. US Navy photo.

On the Marine Corps side, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder said FY 2017 was a tough year for the Marines when it came to Class A mishaps, or those that involve a fatality or loss of an aircraft. Each of the 12 Class A incidents was unique, he said – including one aircraft maintainer who was struck by lightning and died – and so drawing broad conclusions is tough. On the Class C mishaps, though, he also pointed to inexperience among the enlisted maintainers.

Rudder said the bulk of the Class C mishaps occurred when “young Marines trying to do the right things” ended up “towing very expensive airplanes into things. So we’ve revamped our whole towing policy – most of these happen during night crew, which to most is when most of the work gets done for the next day’s schedule – and we’ve increased the level of expertise and [non-commissioned officer] leadership to our night crews.”

Additionally, he told reporters after the hearing, “one of the ways that we’ve found has been helpful in retention is rewarding those that have achieved higher level qualifications on working on that airplane. So in the Marine Corps we promote if you can shoot well, you can run, you are in shape, and you’re smart. In aviation maintenance, we would like to reward people that can do all those things as well as be a professional, qualified mechanic on an F-35 or V-22. And so we gave them recently, last year we gave them an additional [military occupational specialty] and when they went to reenlist, if they did re-enlist, we gave them a bonus kicker for reenlisting. And part of that reenlistment was, you get that $20,000 and we kept you in a squadron for another two years, you didn’t go anywhere else.”

He clarified that those maintainers would either stay in their same squadron or move to another similar operational squadron, but the focus would be on keeping their skill set in the operational and deployable fleet to support Marine aviation.

Regarding Class A mishaps, Rudder said during his opening statement that, “despite the fact that we are well within our normal rates for the 10-year average, [Fiscal Year 2017] was not good and it has our full attention.” Of the 12 mishaps he spoke of, 20 percent occurred at sea, 40 percent occurred in an expeditionary environment, and 60 percent occurred during a deployment. Two of the Class A mishaps occurred on the ground: the fatal lightning strike, and a flash fire incident that injured two Marines.

A Sailor assigned to the Black Knights of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 4 conducts maintenance on an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter on the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). US Navy photo.

Though there were not common themes among the dozen Class A incidents, Rudder assured the subcommittee that each and every one was investigated and led to corrective actions.

When a KC-130T crashed and killed 15 Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman, it was unclear what caused the crash, since a C-130 hadn’t crashed in more than a decade, Rudder said. But the Marine Corps, out of an abundance of caution, grounded the remaining KC-130T squadron until the propellers on each of its 12 planes were replaced.

When a MV-22 Osprey crashed into the back of a ship off the coast of Australia and killed three Marines aboard, the Navy and Marine Corps reduced the allowable maximum weight and increased the required wind envelop for Ospreys landing on ships to create a greater power margin during landings, as USNI News previously reported.

When an Osprey crashed in a reduced visibility situation in an undisclosed location in U.S. Central Command, though the crew had been legally allowed to fly the aircraft in that situation, the Marine Corps decided to change its requirements to reflect those of the Air Force’s special operators, who require more training time in reduced visibility situations before allowing their pilots to land in the dirt or sand during operations.

“While there’s still no direct link between low readiness rates and causation to Class A mishap rates, we continue to believe a true metric of health of naval aviation is aircrew flight hours. Well trained, practiced aviators react to malfunctions and difficult circumstances far better and are much less likely to make mistakes, which in turn allow them to react in a fluid situation or unforeseen event.”

To that end, the Marine Corps is working hard to increase pilots’ monthly flight hours, especially for those not deployed or working up for an imminent deployment. The service considers 15 hours a month per pilot the safe level, and 16.9 hours the level for combat readiness. In 2016, Rudder said, pilots were averaging 13.5 hours a month; in 2017 that was up to 15.4 hours, and today the service sits at 17.2 hours. Though causation isn’t proven, Rudder noted that last year’s mishap rate was 3.99 mishaps per 100,000 flight hours, and today the Marine Corps sits at around 1.7, due to three Class A mishaps so far in FY 2018. Knock on wood, he said, the service is seeing not only more flight hours but safer operations this year.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Willie Crosson drives an aircraft tow tractor to pull an MV-22 Osprey on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8). US Navy photo.

On the Navy side, Kelley said, it is clear that investments in readiness-builders like spare parts, maintenance and logistics are paying off. At NAS Lemoore, VFA-122, the fleet replacement squadron that teaches new fighter pilots how to fly tactical airplanes, only had six ready airplanes just five months ago. Last week, Kelley said, the squadron had 25 mission-capable planes for new pilots to fly.

“While a ready fleet is a lethal fleet, it must also be a safe fleet. Our goal is to have zero preventable mishaps. But for those that do occur, we rigorously investigate and disseminate the lessons learned to help prevent the mishap from happening again,” Kelley said.

To that end, the Navy and Marine Corps are investing in a new Aviation Safety Awareness Program that the Air Force currently uses that allows anonymous reporting of safety concerns and near-miss incidents. Rudder said they amount to a hotline for aviators to report anything from an increase in birds near a runway to potentially hazardous civilian traffic in military flight paths to unsafe behavior by colleagues. Squadrons’ safety officers can review the data, which is also passed up the chain and analyzed with data analytics tools to allow for trend analysis and more predictive analysis of safety issues.

  • Ed L

    Stop up or out policy, implementation of a profession expertise pay to keep valuable skills.

  • Bill Sackedher

    They mentioned e6’s used to have 11.5ish years experience and now they have 10. I’m curious at how many uears experience do they see diminishing returns? At what point are maintainers considered over the hill?

    Also I would imagine the extended multiple combat tours are what really is the root cause of the reduced quality across the board, not to mention the increased number of suicidds especially amongst combat troops.

    As a former 45450A reservest on A-10’s from the Desert Storm eara I couldn’t imagine going back over year after year after year. Not to mention the shop classes in middle school and high school that taught me the fundamental skill’s that got me through tech school are no longer existant in most schools.

    I moved on to industrial equipment maintenance since then and as a hiring manger I’ve noticed the quality of candidates with a high knowledge aptitude is at an all time low and the candidates with a high practical aptitude often don’t know the difference between a wrench and a ratchet.

    When the good Tech’s keep getting deployed they’re just going to move on to the civilian field to save their families. Bonuses don’t keep families together and the smart maintainers i.e. the ones that screw up the least notice this first.

    Probably won’t get better until we can wrap up the conflicts and keep the troops whith their families mucj more often.

  • Duane

    The statements seem to suggest towing accidents are a big part of the increase in class C mishaps. If that is the case, total years of service experience should make little to no difference in such accidents. A skilled and careful tug operator doesn’t need double digit years of experience to avoid accidents. An unskilled or careless tug operator has no business towing multi tens of million dollar aircraft.

    With respect to maintenance errors, experience definitely does matter in terms of skill and care.

    This analysis conflates the two different issues.

  • jetcal1

    Let’s see:
    1. There used to be 2 Chiefs in a workcenter
    2. We started encouraging people to pursue community service and college instead of correspondence courses
    3. Collateral duties
    4. We’ve discouraged homesteading in a geographical area (Like a master jet base.)
    5. I’d bet manning has been reduced as well
    6. More GMT requirements have probably been introduced
    Now, I’ve been retired a really long time so #5 and #6 are speculative.
    But, I’d bet this list is pretty much spot on.
    You see, a PO1 is supposed be administration, QA and some training. Your 5-8 year PO2 is supposed to be the backbone of the shop.

    Has anybody wondered how much it costs to support a Navy that has more admirals than ships?

    • muzzleloader

      Some great points. I remember when I was active, line duties was practically an entry level job. An E-2
      just out of A school was assigned to the line where he learned how to service aircraft, and part of the job was aircraft towing and spotting.
      An E-6 ran the line shack, but an E-5 ran the tows with a crew of trained E2’s and E-3’s.
      We never had a crunched airplane, and I recall no mishaps in the activities I served in, with the exception of a broken wrist by one individual.
      If people are trained and properly supervised incidents should rare.

      • jetcal1

        I’d be curious to go spend a few weeks on the line to see what has changed.

        • goughrmak

          I did 9 years as an AT during the 90’s. Now, I work directly with the fleet often. The line shacks are in terrible condition. I often sit and watch move crews take an hour to put a jet in the hangar in Lemoore. As for AT’s, the “OJT learning” is the worst idea I’ve ever seen. When you have trainers that don’t know what they are doing, how can they teach the trainee?

          • jetcal1

            Undermanned
            Under-trained
            Under-supervised
            But, I’d bet they all have their EAWS and the folks up for chief have their degree and community service bullets taken care of.

          • Rocco

            I saw a young Chief last year at an air show doing recruiting duty!! As asked how old he was…..24 yrs old!! My jaw dropped off my face!!

          • jetcal1

            And he might be an outstanding recruiter. Assuming he came in at 17, and some sort of program he’d still be TAFM limited. But, it’s possible.
            (I did work with one water walker who made Chief in under 9 years.)

          • jetcal1

            BTW, NX used to run far more efficiently than DX. In all fairness, we’d have to look at all the shifts.

      • Rocco

        Agreed

    • old guy

      GREAT perception.

      • jetcal1

        I’d rather not be reading about this.

        • Rocco

          Hey dude great posting!!

    • Rocco

      Lol agreed

  • John Locke

    These issues are not just in the aviation community. The curriculum in A and C schools was cut dramatically in the 90’s. Prior to that an E-3 hitting the fleet usually had knowledge that enabled them to perform tasks commensurate with todays’ 2nds. That translated into assuming greater responsibility, more exposure and earlier technical development. When the schools were reduced in the 90’s the thinking was that a lot of the skills could be learned through OJT in the Fleet but what was not foreseen was the coming generations of kids who didn’t get shooed out of the house after breakfast, who didn’t take apart clocks, build tree forts, trap, hunt, or fish, rebuild cars, operate heavy machinery, “experiment” with gunpowder, play hockey and baseball with neighborhood kids and all those other things that developed mental and physical skills that lent themselves towards later occupational skills. No, the next generations vegged on video games, rarely left the house unless their parents set up “play dates”, carried personal sized bottles of hand sanitizer and got participation trophies. Things change and that cultural shift has indeed occurred but the military environment is still dirty, arduous, physical, mechanical, and requires team work all of which is foreign to most of the raw recruits today. So yes, the learning curve has been extended, CASREP for tech assist is the norm and more accidents happen. Taken altogether it’s been a perfect storm.

    • Rocco

      Kudos spot on!!

  • Patrick Bechet

    A few years back VFA-122 had just under 100 Hornets and Super Hornets on strength. In that context going from 6 to 25 mission capable aircraft (~6% to ~25%) doesnt seem like overly good news!

    • Robert Rubel

      Wow, that was the situation back in the mid-70s in VA-174, the East Coast A-7 RAG; around 50 birds assigned but only 5-6 up in the morning for the schedule. John McCain became CO and within a year we had no bare firewalls and 15-20 birds available for the schedule. Subsequently I became CO of a Hornet squadron and was flabbergasted at the reliability of the airplane. I can understand the maintenance challenges of the Corsair, but I am amazed at the low FSC rate in VFA-122.

      • Rocco

        Right there with ya VF-74!! Had a soft spot for the A-7!!

  • b2

    This is an article explaining recent safety statistics and is then spun by those attempting to mitigate the problems from the USN and Marine aviation operational fleet commanders who are responsible for the mess…. Will they fix things? Based on the attrition rate and wastage, they better. Methinks not however. They and all leaders below them cant stomach having to go back to the past and implement actual, accountable leadership….

    Re Maintainers: How do you teach “attention to detail and caring about professionalism” to this new generation? Most of the sailors today coming in don’t know how to tighten a nut the right way or change the oil on the car at the age of 18. This is the norm and its not their fault…Wasnt like that in my day- at least for the males. One can only hope they can be challenged to develop a work ethic and professional interest… To get their rates before joining they take some “aptitude” tests handed out by recruiters that say they are suited for this or that rating based on some pychological rigaramoe… Then they attend a short, undemanding boot camp and maybe get 6 weeks of A-school. As a result six months later they should be able to conduct a daily on a jet, right? No, well that ain’t happening…yet the Navy continues to make changes to the ratings and the culture with their social engineering making achievement of that jet aircraft”daily” impossible to obtain in six months to a year. As a result it’s going to be tough to really develop some competent Chiefs from this current generation of maintainers… Maybe maint robots will save us.. lol (cynically).

    However there are those who do the job right out there and always strive to do the right thing. Those folks should be rewarded, praised and put into leadership roles at the earliest. They should also have the positional authority and leadership skills to force their peers to shape up or move into another rate. Problem is, can the existing leaders spot those people? Dont know. No experts or consultants can help the Navy do this for the Navy/USMC either…

  • David Ball

    So the fruits of the cuts during the Obama Administration are now bearing fruit. Any one could have told the DoD that having an up or out policy and expanding High Year Tenure would have this effect. And no it’s not about the length of the A Schools but the lack of C Schools that is the issue. Unlike some I went to an A School for two different ratings during my tenure in both the USMC as an 6521/6536 and in the Navy as an AM, the direct difference was the lack of the C school for the Type Model Series aircraft that I worked on IE the F/A-18 E/F. This was as a result of being in my first tour with the USN in a FRAMP Squadron (VFA-122)… And during the rest of my tenure I never did. Yes folks Three Squadrons!

    • John Locke

      It’s Obama’s fault!!!

      The cuts were due to a bipartisan agreement to reduce the deficit and not put the country in default after reaching the budget ceiling. Oh and the Republicans controlled the House.

      Facts matter.

      • NEC338x

        Goes back to the ‘peace dividend’. Administration proposes, Congress disposes. I do think a lot of the SJW focus can be attributed to the previous Administration. It gave time for the ticks to bury in.

    • jetcal1

      Nope!
      The cuts started Oct 1st, 1989.
      Peace dividend, brother. It all started with the peace dividend.

      (I do wonder how many of these budget cuts were self-inflicted by people looking for an end of tour Legion of Merit.
      Because we all know that to succeed in the billet we have to have bullets that make us standout.)

      • Rocco

        Bill Clinton!!

        • jetcal1

          Bush I.
          FY 90.

      • Vitamin Sea

        The 90’s budget cuts were bad, but the most heinous of all was Perform to Serve. 10-14 year LPO’s and CDQARs kicked out or force converted to completely new and unrelated rates. Happened under Obama’s watch.

        • jetcal1

          I heard some “mixed results” stories. One gentleman was at JRB Farewell and we discussed his forced conversion (AD to MA) versus being RiF’d.

  • old guy

    When the leaders don;t lead, you cannot blame the followers.

  • David C

    Where’s the khaki in that picture of the MV-22 under tow?