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US Troops Killed in Plane Crashes Skyrockets in 2017

This frame grab from video supplied by KFDA-TV shows investigators looking over the broken fuselage of an Air Force plane on March 15, 2017, in Clovis, N.M. (KFDA-TV via AP)
This frame grab from video supplied by KFDA-TV shows investigators looking over the broken fuselage of an Air Force plane on March 15, 2017, in Clovis, N.M. (KFDA-TV via AP)

Even before the Navy C-2A Greyhound crash on Wednesday, the number of U.S. troops killed in plane crashes had skyrocketed this year -- along with the total number of crashes overall compared to this point a year ago, a Fox News investigation has uncovered.

So far this year, there have been 22 U.S. military noncombat plane crashes flying routine operations. That's up 38 percent from this time last year.

The number of American troops killed in these plane crashes has more than doubled. Following the announcement by the Seventh Fleet on Thursday night that it has ended its search for three missing sailors hundreds of miles off the coast of Japan, the number of U.S. service members lost to plane crashes in 2017 stands at 37. That is more than 130 percent higher than the number killed in non-combat plane crashes at this point in 2016.

Many on Capitol Hill say years of budget cuts are taking a toll.

"Perhaps the greatest harm to our national security and our military is self-inflicted. I repeat self-inflicted," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former naval aviator, said on the senate floor. "We are killing more of our own people in training than our enemies are in combat."

The Navy transport plane crash this week was the deadliest one for the U.S. military since an Army Black Hawk helicopter crashed off the coast of Hawaii in August, killing five soldiers.

The crash of the C-2 Greyhound occurred 575 miles out to sea while flying from Japan to the USS Ronald Reagan. A former C-2 pilot says it's a miracle eight sailors survived and compared the pilots' actions in the crash to Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landing a US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009.

The Navy C-2 cargo plane is used to bring passengers and supplies to aircraft carriers at sea. It first entered service in the late 1960s and is scheduled to be replaced by the V-22 Osprey in a few years. But only nine of the 33 C-2 planes in the fleet can currently fly, according to Navy officials.

Right now, the investigation is focusing on the possibility of an extremely rare dual engine failure, officials told Fox News. Fuel and oil sources are also being examined. The Navy is expected to release the names of the remaining missing sailors late Friday.

Just two days before the Navy plane crash, an Air Force T-38 training jet -- with parts also dating from the 1960s -- crashed in Texas, killing one pilot and injuring another. A mechanical failure is also suspected. A similar Navy training jet, a T-45, crashed last month, killing both pilots.

In July, a Marine Corps KC-130 transport plane crashed in the Mississippi Delta, killing all 16 on board after reaching cruising altitude during a routine cross-country flight from North Carolina to California.

Less than a month later, a Marine Corps V-22 Osprey crashed off the east coast of Australia, killing three Marines. Rescue workers saved 23 others.

In April, following a Fox News report about instructor pilots refusing to fly the Navy's T-45 training jet -- citing poison in the plane's oxygen system -- the Navy grounded its fleet of some 200 jets for weeks. Only recently has the Navy resumed full training flights for student jet pilots, seven months after grounding the jets.

The Navy's crisis in aviation extends into its premier strike aircraft as well.

The head of naval aviation says only half of the Navy's 542 F-18 Super Hornet jets can fly right now, and only 31 percent are fully mission capable and ready to "fight tonight."

It's even worse for the Marine Corps, where roughly 70 percent of its fleet of older model F-18 Hornets can't fly.

In the Air Force, only half of the bomber fleet of B-1 and B-2 bombers can fly, forcing airmen to scrounge for spare parts in places in an Arizona desert location known as "The Boneyard." The Secretary of the Air Force told reporters earlier this month she was almost 2,000 pilots short, forcing the service to ask retired pilots to come back.

In order to get three aircraft carriers ready to deploy for ISIS strikes in the Gulf or other hot spots around the world, beginning in January, nearly 100 F-18 fighter jets had to be shuffled around, robbing training squadrons of valuable flight time to train future pilots, according to Vice Adm. Troy M. Shoemaker before a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing earlier this month.

"[The] shell game leaves non-deployed squadrons well below the number of jets required to keep aviators proficient," Shoemaker warned.

"Additionally, to get those air wings ready, several hundred parts had to be cannibalized from other [F-18] Super Hornets across the force, further decimating the readiness of squadrons and adding significantly and unnecessarily to the workload of our maintainers," he added.

Shoemaker said the lack of jets forced hundreds of sailors to move unnecessarily or remain on board ships for longer than planned.

The U.S. Navy is down 41 ships and 90,000 sailors since Sept. 11, 2001. For years the defense budget prioritized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Training, spare parts and maintenance suffered, as well as the ability to buy newer planes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has testified before Congress, arguing that "no enemy in the field has done more to harm the combat readiness of our military than [budget cuts]."

According to Sen. McCain, only five of 58 Army brigades and four of 64 Air Force squadrons are combat-ready.

Congress has called for a $26 billion increase in defense spending to rebuild the military and to try to get more airplanes flying again.

Leonard Balducci contributed to this report.

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