A U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk crew chief directs passengers during loading. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
There is no direct correlation between how much time U.S. Army pilots get in the cockpit and the recent spike in catastrophic non-combat mishaps, according to the service’s safety director.
“Our data do not indicate a correlation between the execution of flight hours and mishaps,” Brig. Gen. David Francis, commander of the Army combat readiness center and director of Army safety, said at a June 13 House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces hearing. “We just cannot correlate that data, one to the other.”
An ongoing study of Army class-A aviation mishaps shows most are caused by human error. Less than one-fourth of all major mishaps are attributed to mechanical failure and none of the Army’s rotorcraft fleets suffer more class-A mishaps than others, he said.
“We do not have a specific platform that indicates to us a particular problem,” Francis said. “We have various sizes of fleets for Apaches, Chinooks and Black Hawks, but none of them are indicating to us that we have a problem in one particular area.”
Class-A mishaps — which cause $1 million in damage, a fatality or both — spike at the outset of major combat operations. As expected, more helicopters crash and more pilots are killed in the early days of conflict, Francis said.
“What we can say is our data does indicate that the Army, Army aviation, has experienced the biggest spike in class-A mishaps in conjunction with major combat operations,” he said.
Army data show a marked increase in class-A mishaps during the initial stages of Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Francis said.
In fiscal year 2007, during the height of the surge in Iraq, the Army suffered 2.39 class-A mishaps per 100,000 flying hours, according to Army crash data. In the 10 years that followed, the rate fell to 0.87 per 100,00 flight hours in fiscal 2016.
During fiscal 2017, the class-A mishap rate was 0.99 and the rate currently stands at 0.93 for fiscal 2018.
“The mishap rates from FY16 to date constitute the lowest three-year period for class-A aviation mishaps in the last 35 years,” he said. “Despite this improvement, the Army remains aggressively committed to driving our mishap rates down further.”
The Army currently has enough funding to train its pilots and perform the aviation mission safely, but budget uncertainty and mandatory spending caps in place for several years prior to fiscal 2018 resulted in fewer personnel and some atrophy to the Army’s investigative capabilities, Francis said.
“We are adequately funded and resourced to do the mission that we’re required to do,” Francis said. “Over the last five years, we have had a decrease in personnel. … We were asked how we could do this more efficiently, just as everybody is challenged to do in tough times.”
“It does not worry me,” he added. “We’re not missing anything. It’s taking a little bit longer than we’d like right now to get to some of the analytics, but certainly on urgent things we’re not seeing a risk to the force or to the Army right now. We do want to expand that capability to look deeper into some areas.”
Investigation of lesser accidents, particularly class-C mishaps, has been “revealing,” he said.
“What we often realize is it’s a matter of inches or seconds that make the difference between a class-C and a class-A, which is a more severe mishap and often times with fatalities,” he said.
Studying less-severe mishaps has resulted in what the Army is calling the “near-miss brief” — taking class-C and reconstructing the flight to determine what kept it from being catastrophic. Currently conducting that brief for all Army aviators in the active, Guard and Reserve components.
“Causal factors remain generally constant,” he said.
Human error accounts for about 76% to 80% of all mishaps, Francis said. Material failure causes between 15 and 19%. DOD is trying to identify those human causes and figuring out how to train to avoid them. The Army is focused on training pilots for high-end combat against a peer or near-peer adversary in hopes of preventing a spike of fatalities and aircraft losses at the outset of the next conflict, Francis said.
“Where we are focused right now is making sure we are doing that hard training that is going to be required to meet a peer or near-peer threat, which will drive us to lower flight profiles and increased risk to prevent that next spike from occurring when and if we do get called to that next combat engagement,” Francis said.
Beginning of a series of hearings on all aspects of the aviation safety crisis that will oversee how the military’s response is managed, Turner said.