An Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flies near Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho.

An Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flies near Gowen Field in Boise, Idaho. (Becky Vanshur/U.S. Air National Guard)

WASHINGTON — Army and Air National Guard helicopter pilots are on average failing to meet training hour goals, contributing to human errors that have caused nearly 300 accidents in the past decade, according to a watchdog report released Wednesday.

The Government Accountability Office report commissioned by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blamed most of the accidents on failure to follow training standards, overconfidence, poor communication, and lack of awareness. Schumer ordered the safety review after a medical evacuation helicopter crash near Rochester, N.Y., killed three service members in January 2021.

The report’s findings and safety recommendations have taken on new urgency following last month’s deadly collision of two Army Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopters during a routine nighttime training exercise in Kentucky, Schumer said. All nine soldiers aboard the helicopters died.

“The Army and Air Force must act swiftly to implement the straight-forward and achievable safety practices outlined in the GAO report. These recommendations will save lives,” Schumer said in a statement. “I will keep fighting to make sure that no community has to suffer through the same preventable tragedy.”

The Army and Air National Guard reported 298 helicopter accidents during search and rescue missions, disaster relief and other non-combat flight operations from 2012 to 2021. About 45 of those were considered serious and resulted in the deaths of 28 National Guard personnel, according to the report.

More than 90% of the accidents were caused by human error, the GAO said.

Despite established flying hour goals, training pilots in the Army and Air National Guard were not flying enough on average to meet them, according to the report. A variety of issues, including a lack of aircrew availability, maintenance problems and limited or no simulator access, prevented pilots from racking up enough hours in the sky.

“For example, having too few maintenance personnel limited the number of helicopters available for training,” the report stated. “The Army and Air Force, including their National Guard components, have taken steps to mitigate these challenges, such as conducting formal studies, but these steps have not fully addressed the identified challenges.”

The report also pointed out shortfalls in the Army National Guard’s oversight of training, noting that there is no system to regularly evaluate pilot performance. Both the Army and Air National Guards’ risk management procedures have also not been continuously evaluated and workload and staffing issues have hindered other safety protocols, according to the report.

Schumer sent a letter Wednesday to the secretaries of the Army and Air Force urging the services to improve flight safety training programs and implement other recommendations cited by the GAO.

The report calls for more maintenance crews to expedite helicopter repairs and give pilots more opportunities to fly as well as the creation of a database to track accidents and the implementation of post-crash recommendations.

Schumer said the flight training facility in Rochester does not have a simulator and asked the secretaries to evaluate the need for additional simulators at all facilities.

“It is clear that if these fundamental issues are addressed, a reduction in human error crashes would likely follow,” he said. “I am dedicated to providing the Army and the Air Force with whatever resources needed to improve helicopter safety, including purchasing more simulators and hiring more maintenance crews.”

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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