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Air Force orders stand down over safety issues, as fatal crashes climb in 2018

A C-130 crashed in Savannah on May 2, 2018. (Savannah Professional Firefighters Association/Released)

The top Air Force general has ordered a one-day stand down for all aircraft so the service can review its safety measures and curb a drastic rise in crashes that have killed 18 airmen since October.

Gen. David Goldfein ordered the stand down Monday for flying and maintenance units, directing commanders to convene forums to gather feedback from airmen to help them identify underlying issues that might have contributed to the increase in fatal crashes. Air Force data shows that Class A mishaps — crashes resulting in more than $2 million of damage to aircraft or fatal or permanent injury — have increased 48 percent among the service’s manned aircraft since the start of fiscal year 2018, which began Oct. 1.

“We cannot afford to lose a single airman or weapons system due to a mishap that could have been prevented,” Goldfein said. “Our men and women have volunteered to give their last full measure for America’s security.”

The stand down comes on the heels of a May 2 crash of an Air Force WC-130H in Savannah, Ga., that killed all nine members of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard who were aboard the plane that was bound for decommissioning at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. It remains unclear what caused the decades-old cargo plane to go down just moments after taking off. Air Force officials said the circumstances remain under investigation.

It was the fourth fatal crash for the service in fiscal year 2018. The Air Force had only one fatal crash the previously year, data shows.

The 18 deaths in those crashes makes 2018 the deadliest aviation year in at least a decade for the Air Force. Thirteen airmen were killed in six crashes in 2008 and 10 were killed in five crashes in 2013. The service did not record double-digit fatalities in any other year since 2008, its data shows.

Air Force Maj. Gen. John Rauch, service’s safety chief, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the stand down had already been discussed among senior Air Force officials before it was ordered this week. Active-duty units have up to May 21 to complete the one-day pause, he said. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units will have until June 25 to complete their stand down.

Rauch said it was not clear whether underlying issues that connect the fatal crashes exist. Some members of Congress have linked the uptick in such incidents in aviation among all four military services to budget cuts under sequestration in recent years.

Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat for the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation Monday to create an independent National Commission on Military Aviation Safety to probe the rise in military-wide aviation crashes since 2013, the year sequestration took effect.

Goldfein has directed his wing commanders to focus their forums during the stand downs on several areas including leadership, training, mission planning, risk management, flight-line operations, experience among their airmen, and flying and maintenance fundamentals, Rauch said.

Rauch said information collected during the single-day reviews would be forwarded up the Air Force chains of command, but he could not say how the review would help address the problems in military aviation. He only described the move as “not insignificant” and said the stand down did not include plans for a formal, high-level review of its findings that would be released to the public.

Rauch also said Air Force aviation was “not in a crisis,” echoing other senior Pentagon officials who have made similar comments in recent weeks.

In addition to the WC-130 crash last week, the Air Force lost one of its elite Thunderbirds pilots in a F-16 crash during training at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas last month. In March, seven airmen died when an Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk went down in Iraq. The military said the helicopter was not shot down by enemy fire. In November, a pilot was killed when his T-38 trainer jet crashed in Texas.


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