The Marine Corps is sharpening its aviation community and recapitalizing its aircraft, but the improvements aren't happening fast enough to satisfy its top officer.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Washington, D.C., shortly after news broke that a third F/A-18 Hornet had crashed in the space of three months, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller said the recent rash of crashes -- six in a little more than a year -- did not yet indicate a major anomaly.
"I actually looked at the numbers over the last few years," he said. "It's higher than it was, but it's not completely statistically off the wall. But that doesn't mean it's good news."
Neller said he had not yet received an update on the status of the pilot in Wednesday's crash, currently the subject of search and rescue efforts, and expressed hopes that he or she would be safely recovered.
Overall, Neller said, he's paying close attention
"We're concerned about it. [Deputy Commandant of Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis] and I talk about it," he said.
Neller reiterated that the Marine Corps is making progress on driving up pilot flight hours, which reached troubling lows over the last year with large numbers of aging aircraft out of reporting and an operational tempo that remained high.
Neller said Wednesday that pilots are now averaging about four more flight hours per month on every aviation platform, including the F/A-18.
"Is it fast enough, is it where we want to be? No. We're in a tough place and we have to develop a plan. Our plan is happening, but it's not happening fast enough," Neller said. "The bottom line is, we've got to recapitalize aviation, we need to replace our airplanes, we've got to get better parts support."
If any of the Hornet crashes, most of which are still under investigation, are found to have a human error element, Neller said the solution is to push for more flight hours.
"So there's a lot of things, and we're not where we want to be and we're just going to continue to work on it," he said.