Report: Lack of training time, budget cuts among top contributors to 224 military aviation deaths since 2013
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 3, 2020
WASHINGTON — Military pilots and troops who maintain aircraft are overworked and undertrained, contributing to more than 6,000 aviation accidents since 2013 that have killed 224 service members, according to a new congressionally mandated report.
Aviation troops deploy overseas too frequently without adequate home-station training, many flying units are riddled with low morale, and irregular Pentagon funding from Congress has forced service members to misuse or scavenge for critical aircraft parts, the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety listed in a new report examining issues plaguing the aviation community in recent years.
The 143-page report dated Dec. 1 and released to the public Thursday was the culmination of 18 months of work by the seven-member commission. The group analyzed 6,079 noncombat aviation incidents between 2013 and 2018 and interviewed thousands of aviators and aircraft maintainers in some 200 units at 80 military installations as part of the probe.
“Our findings recommendations really focused on four areas where we think Congress, the Department of Defense and the [military] services can take immediate steps to reduce aviation mishaps,” said retired Army Gen. Dick Cody, a former pilot who was the chairman of the commission created in 2018 by lawmakers. “That is: Pilots need to fly. Maintainers need to maintain. Data can save lives — we need better data. And, funding [from Congress] should be consistent.”
In addition to costing lives, aviation mishaps, which rose in recent years across all the military services and affected fixed-wing airplanes, helicopters and tilt-rotor aircraft such as Ospreys, cost American taxpayers some $11.6 billion since 2013 and cost the Pentagon 186 destroyed aircraft.
In a phone call with reporters Thursday, Cody said Congress and the Pentagon have taken the issue seriously. He anticipated lawmakers and the military would heed much of the advice the commissioners levied in their report.
Cody had been scheduled Thursday to provide public testimony detailing the report to the House Armed Services Committee’s subpanel on readiness, but the hearing was quietly changed to a briefing closed to the public. On its website, the committee cited unspecified “COVID-19 complications” for the last-minute change. Committee spokespersons did not immediately respond to a request for further information.
The commission’s report does not single out any one issue as the underlying cause of the rise in military aviation problems. The issues are myriad and will take years to address, Cody said.
But much of the problem can be traced to budget constraints, he said. The Pentagon has continued to face issues stemming from the sequestration-mandated budget cuts after 2012. Additionally, the regular use of temporary government funding measures, known as continuing resolutions, in the absence of annual defense spending bills forces the Pentagon to cut funding to certain programs. Too often, Cody said, defense officials have cut first from aviation budgets.
The Pentagon — like the rest of the federal government — right now is operating at fiscal year 2020 spending levels on a continuing resolution set to expire Dec. 11 as Congress has yet to pass annual legislation to fund the military for fiscal year 2021, which started Oct. 1.
Those funding issues have resulted in the military’s inability to order new parts for aircraft, in cutting aviation personnel and drawing back flying and maintenance hours for troops, the commission found. Many of those problems could be amended if Congress would pass regular, predictable budgets for the military, Cody said.
“In terms of CRs and sequestration, the impact is not just the military catching up in parts, it's also about training,” he said. “It’s flying hours and getting guys and gals to … proficiency for the mission set.”
In written statements, the House subpanel's leaders expressed alarm about the committee’s findings and lamented Congress’ role in budget reductions that have played a part in aviation problems.
“Congress must do its part to ensure that our military receives timely and consistent funding by passing the appropriations bills every year,” the subpanel’s chairman, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “The damage inflicted by continuing resolutions cannot be overstated.”
Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, the subpanel’s top Republican, blasted sequestration as a “failed experiment in fiscal responsibility.”
Troops raise issues
In their report, commissioners detail many of the issues that service members, who spoke to them on condition their identities not be shared publicly or with their commands, routinely raised with them.
Maintainers, for example, said troops were leaving their entry-level job training programs without critical skills, including the ability to identify and use common tools or critical parts on the aircraft that they were hired to work on. They also regularly are tasked to perform duties unassociated with aircraft maintenance, Cody said.
Part of the problem, according to the report, stems from initial job training that has relied too heavily on simulator-based training instead of hands-on training.
“On one site visit, the commission heard a story about a recently graduated maintainer who was instructed to remove a panel,” the report reads. “The maintainer did not know which tool to use because the computer-based training program removed the panel with a click of the mouse. When the maintainer actually removed the panel for the first time, it landed on his foot.”
Pilots, too, spend too much of their training in simulators, the commissioners wrote.
“The commission heard concerns from pilots in all the services about the increased use of simulation in lieu of actual flying,” they wrote. “Recognizing that simulation is a cost-effective flight training tool, it is a supplement or enhancement, not a replacement, for actual flight training. There is great value in both.”
Simulators, the commissioners wrote, cannot replicate real-world issues that pilots face in the cockpit, such as the pull of G-forces or the act of landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.
The lack of training flight hours also hurts morale, leading to an exodus of experienced flyers, according to the commission. Pilots told commissioners their aviation skills atrophied while they served nonaviation jobs required for promotions.
An Army pilot interviewed for the report told commissioners flying was only 5% of his job, leading him to “hate driving into work every day.”
Others said near-constant rotations to places such as eastern Europe and the Middle East took a toll on their family lives.
“It’s the quality of life for me,” one Army pilot told the commissioners. “I’m gone (so often), and it’s just not worth it.”
A Marine pilot added: “My kids don’t know who I am … They don’t know when I am going to be home. That stuff leads to the burnout and distraction while flying.”
The problems plaguing the military aviation community will take time to resolve, Cody said, but there are steps the Defense Department and military services should begin taking now.
The commission recommended the Pentagon establish a new group charged with establishing military aviation norms, collecting and analyzing accident data and guiding the military services on best practices. The commissioners dubbed the group the Joint Safety Council, which would be run by a two-star general or admiral, staffed by each service safety chief, and report directly to the deputy secretary of defense.
That council, according to the report, could help the Pentagon fix a long-running problem of poor data collecting and analysis and help the services address a “seesaw pattern of effort” to improve aviation safety, in which the issues receive a lot of initial attention following high-profile crashes that “fades [as] leadership focus and resources move elsewhere.”
Other recommendations focused on training and incentivizing aviation troops.
Pilots should fly more at home station. Cody said the commission did not provide a specific recommendation for the amount of training flight hours that pilots should get each month, but safety officials recommend 11 to 15 cockpit hours each month as a minimum. Many pilots reported to the commission that they routinely were flying less than 10 hours per month.
The services should ensure aviation units are fully staffed with administrative personnel to cut back on pilots’ nonflying duties, commissioners wrote. Congress also should grant the military services the ability to boost aviation retention bonuses from $35,000 up to $100,000 per year to entice pilots to remain on active duty, the commissioners recommended.
Maintainers, too, need more time conducting their mission in a hands-on environment. The commission recommended maintainers be allowed to dedicate 95% of their job requirements to actual maintenance. They additionally recommended the services introduce better rewards and incentives for high-achieving maintainers. The military should also provide its maintainers opportunities to obtain aircraft mechanic education required in civilian jobs in exchange for committing to stay in the service, the report recommended.
Despite the challenges aviation troops face, Cody said as the commission traveled the country to speak with them and observe their training, he was struck by their commitment to their craft and service.
“We saw frustration for sure,” the retire general said. “But I want to represent the fact that when we met these young men and women, I was tremendously impressed with their pride of their organization, their knowledge, their candor.
“They want to learn. They want to do better. They want to be more combat-ready.”