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After Spike in Deaths, Lost Aircraft, Aviation Commission Calls for New Safety Council

An F/A-18 Super Hornet, attached to embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, breaks the sound barrier during an air power demonstration, showcasing firepower capability and maneuverability while at sea in the Indo-Pacific region in 2020. US Navy Photo

A commission tasked with assessing aviation safety in the military is calling on the Pentagon to form a dedicated safety council across the services, according to a congressionally mandated report released Thursday.

The National Commission on Military Aviation Safety, which the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act formed to evaluate aviation mishaps between FY 2013 and 2018, in its report suggested the Pentagon organize a Joint Safety Council that would reside within the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

“The JSC will develop aviation safety standards and evaluate the services’ implementation of aviation safety programs,” the report reads.

According to suggested text for a legislative proposal that would form the JSC, the council should include individual safety directors for the Navy, Army and Air Force.

“Recognizing that the successful implementation of aviation safety programs requires cooperation from the services, the commission recommends that the JSC be composed primarily of Service representatives,” according to the report. “This will ensure that the JSC’s directives, recommendations, and programs properly account for each Service’s unique aircraft, culture, and mission. The Commission’s intent is for the JSC to augment and support, not supplant, the Services’ existing safety programs.”

The commission found that between FY 2013 and FY 2018, 198 individuals died due to aviation mishaps in the military, while the services lost more than $9 billion and 157 aircraft.

During that timeframe, Class A mishaps – which the report defined as leading to either “death or permanent disability” or costing a minimum of $2 million – cost the Navy approximately $2.059 billion in damages and the Marine Corps $2.486 billion. Class B mishaps during those fiscal years cost the Marine Corps $31.31 million, while they cost the Navy $107.43 million. Class C mishaps – which the report defined as leading to between $50,000 and $500,000 in damages or non-life threatening injuries that a person needs to recover from while not working – cost the Navy $121.6 million and the Marine Corps $46.32 million.

The report specifically found that the Marine Corps experienced an increased rate of Class A mishaps compared to the other services.

“[T]he Army, Air Force, and Navy had moderate fluctuations in Class A mishap rates during the fiscal years 2013–2018 study period. However, the Marine Corps consistently had higher Class A mishap rates. The higher mishap rates in the Marine Corps are consistent with problems the commission observed during site visits,” the report reads.

“These included low morale, pilots struggling to maintain enough flight hours for currency, over-stressed aircrew and maintenance personnel overloaded with additional duties, poor facilities, and a pattern of using shortcuts to keep aircraft flying. The Commission assesses that these issues contributed to the spike in Class A mishaps from fiscal year 2015 to 2017,” it continues.

The commission’s chairman, retired Army Gen. Richard Cody, in a call with reporters Thursday pointed to the Marine Corps’ supply chain as one potential factor contributing to the service’s number of Class A mishaps.

“We don’t know what the trend is. We do know that when we went to the Marine Corps maintenance facilities and training facilities, they were about as stressed as any of the services that we saw,” Cody said. “And some of their facilities were not facilities that we would want young Americans maintaining multi-million dollar aircraft. And their supply chain didn’t appear to be as robust as the other services.”

An F/A-18F Super Hornet attached to the Gladiators of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106 launches from the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) during flight operations on March 29, 2020. US Navy Photo

The report overall cited several factors that contributed to mishaps in the services: too few flight hours for pilots, maintainers given tasks other than taking care of aircraft, and inconsistent funding, often due to continuing resolutions.

“Our finding and recommendations really focused on four areas where we think Congress, the Department of Defense, and the services can take immediate steps to reduce aviation mishaps,” Cody told reporters. “And that is pilots need to fly. Maintainers need to maintain. Data can save lives and we need better data. And funding should be consistent.”

Cody pointed to waivers as one area the services should tackle to improve its safety measures. The report notes that when units are unable to reach the base number of flight hours, they often seek waivers.

“Tracking waivers indicates problems. And if you’re having to issue waivers too much, it ought to be reported and tracked to highlight either you don’t have enough aircraft to fly, you don’t have enough instructor pilots,” Cody said.

“And that was another thing we found in some of the services – they’re short instructor pilots, which is not a good thing. It just multiples when you’ve got young men and women coming out of the training base with less flight time and they show up at a unit with less IPs. I mean, and then you have an upcoming rotation coming and that creates problems.”