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Air Force to probe rise in low-level, non-fatal aviation mishaps

F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Arizona Air National Guard's 162nd Wing fly an air-to-air training mission, April 8, 2015. (U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

The Air Force’s top general has ordered a probe into low-level, non-fatal aviation mishaps, asking investigators to determine whether underlying issues are responsible for an uptick in their frequency in recent years, Air Force officials said Tuesday.

Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, ordered last week that the Safety Office at Headquarters Air Force review Class C mishaps in an effort to drive down their occurrences, said Maj. Ken Scholz, a spokesman for the service. The general is concerned the lower level incidents, if unchecked, could result in higher rates of more serious crashes.

A Class C mishap is defined by the Defense Department as an incident resulting in damages costing $50,000 or more but less than $500,000 in repairs or a non-fatal injury that results in more than one day away from work. Class A mishaps, the most serious, cause more than $2 million of damage, the permanent destruction of an aircraft, a fatality or a permanent disability.

“Any accident is one too many,” Gen. Stephen Wilson, the Air Force vice chief of staff, said Monday at the Future of War Conference in Washington, D.C. “We spend a lot of time making sure we have the safest program we possibly can.”

The review comes on the heels of a week in which five military aircraft crashed in the United States and Africa. The crashes left seven servicemembers dead, four aircraft destroyed and prompted U.S. and Djiboutian officials to ground American military aircraft operating out of the tiny Horn of Africa country that includes an American base key to operations in areas including Yemen and Somalia.

The incidents included the April 4 crash of an Air Force F-16, which killed Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Stephen Del Bagno during training for the demonstration team’s upcoming airshows. The Air Force has canceled all Thunderbirds performances through at least April 22 since Del Bagno’s death, scrapping planned appearances at shows in California, Florida and Ohio, the squadron’s commander, Lt. Col. Kevin Walsh, announced Monday.

Despite Del Bagno’s death, which remains under investigation, Air Force officials said Class A and Class B mishap rates have gone down in recent years.

Wilson said Monday that 2014 and 2017 were “the safest years” that the Air Force has recorded, respectively, in terms of Class A mishaps. But crash data, recently examined and published by Military Times, shows even as the higher-level incidents have receded, the rash of Class C mishaps have driven the Air Force to seven-year highs in reported aviation accidents.

Some analysts and lawmakers have linked the increase in aviation and other non-combat mishaps to sequestration-mandated defense budget cuts in recent years. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, have pointed to sequestration as the underlying issue in the crashes, saying repeatedly the military is facing a readiness crisis. McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Thornberry is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

But Pentagon officials have pushed back on the idea that funding is to blame for increases in aviation and other mishaps.

Scholz, the Air Force spokesman, said Tuesday that the service had not reached that conclusion.

“I won’t speculate on suggested correlations between mishaps rates and funding but as our aircraft age, it costs more to fix them,” he told Stars and Stripes.

Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, said April 5 that military aviation was not in a crisis, but promised the Pentagon was investigating recent crashes to determine whether they were linked.

The published data shows that aviation incidents have spiked since 2013, the year sequestration was first implemented. At least 133 servicemembers were killed in crashes between fiscal year 2013 and fiscal year 2017, the data shows. Twenty-six troops have been killed in aviation crashes since fiscal year 2018 began Oct. 1, 2017.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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