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Military leaders: More training, newer aircraft needed to halt aviation crisis

A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle flies over northern Iraq early in the morning of Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. (Senior Airman Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force)

More training time for pilots and newer aircrafts are needed to stem the recent deadly flow of aviation crashes, a panel of military officials told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. John Rauch Jr., Air Force chief of staff and commander of the Air Force Safety Center, told lawmakers that pilots are undertaking inherent risks by flying older planes.

The Air Force has seen a higher rate of deadly aircraft crashes, with a 53 percent spike in some of its more serious aviation mishaps so far this year, he said.

“The environment that we live in with aging aircraft and the engineering that’s required to sustain those aircraft…we are certainly setting up hazards there that have to be mitigated” without new planes, Rauch testified before the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on tactical and land forces.

The congressional hearing comes in the wake of a troubling year for the military dominated by a rash of aviation crashes and readiness concerns. More U.S. military servicemembers have died in aircraft crashes than while serving in war-torn Afghanistan, said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the tactical and land forces subcommittee.

This past weekend, an F-15 fighter jet assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa crashed while performing routine training maneuvers in the sixth Air Force-related aircraft crash in the last year. The pilot survived.

“We are experiencing a crisis in military readiness brought on by years of continuous combat operations and continued deferred modernization, lack of training hours and aging equipment,” Turner said Wednesday in his opening remarks at the hearing. “The alarming number of aviation accidents just in the past three months reveals how deep the damage goes and the magnitude of the task of repairing and rebuilding our capabilities.”

Last month, the House Armed Services Committee approved a plan to create an independent National Commission on Military Aviation Safety to review and assess the causes fueling such mishaps from 2013 and 2018 and make related safety, training, maintenance, personnel and other policy recommendations.

Military leaders told lawmakers on Wednesday that a vast majority of the more serious crashes, known as Class A incidents, are related to human factors, while a minority, less than 20 percent, are related to issues connected to aircraft equipment. They all agreed that as a result, training is critical to address the problem.

“Our Army aviators are landing in dirt and dust in various challenging environments. They are up against an enemy force,” Brig. Gen. David Francis, commanding general for the Army Combat Readiness Center and director of Army safety. “It goes back to training…[that] is our primary focus.”

The Army said it has seen an increase in its rate of Class A mishaps, crashes that involve loss of life or more costly repairs. But that rate remains lower than levels seen during the 2007 troop surge in the war in Iraq, Francis said. For example, the rate was 2.39 crashes per 100,000 flying hours during the 2007 surge. It dropped to a low of .87 crashes by 2016.

However, in fiscal year 2017, which ended Sept. 30, the rate ticked up to .99 and is at .93 for fiscal year 2018. That said, the mishap rate from fiscal years 2016 to 2018 mark the lowest for a three-year period in 35 years, Francis said. The Army’s aviation mishap rate spikes in conjunction with major combat operations, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt, commander of the Naval Safety Center, also said the Navy mishap rate fluctuates depending on the tempo of operations.

“I think the mission in and of itself is much more inherently risky as we go forward and being able to consistently train along those lines would be helpful,” he said.


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