Recent Rash of Fatal Aviation Accidents Not a 'Crisis,' Pentagon Says

The U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds practice their performance over Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, for the "Wings Over the Pacific" open house Sept. 18, 2009. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Mike Meares)
The U.S. Air Force Demonstration Squadron Thunderbirds practice their performance over Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, for the "Wings Over the Pacific" open house Sept. 18, 2009. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Mike Meares)

The Defense Department does not see a "crisis" for military aviation developing after four deadly accidents in the last three weeks killed a total of 14 service members.

"Certainly, that's not normal and our response to it is not normal," but "I'm not prepared to say right now that it is some kind of crisis," Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing Thursday.

McKenzie said no pattern or linkage has been found in the initial analysis of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft accidents.

He said questions still to be answered in each accident include whether the mishap cause was systematic, "related to something we're doing across the entire fleet," or maintenance-related.

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In the latest incident, Air Force Thunderbirds pilot Maj. Stephen Del Bagno was killed in the crash Wednesday of his F-16 Fighting Falcon during a routine training flight at Nevada Test and Training Range near Nellis Air Force Base.

On another routine training flight Tuesday, four Marines were killed in the crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter near El Centro, California. The helicopter was part of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The California crash was the second Marine aviation accident to occur Tuesday. In Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, an AV-8B Harrier jet crashed shortly after takeoff.

The pilot ejected and was in stable condition, the Corps reported. The pilot and aircraft were assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 162 aboard the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima.

On March 15, seven service members were killed in the crash in western Iraq of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter. And on March 14, two naval aviators were killed in the crash of an F/A-18F Super Hornet near Key West, Florida.

The number of service members killed in non-combat aviation mishaps has risen sharply in recent years. In 2017, there were 37, compared to 19 in 2016, according to the Defense Department.

The latest string of accidents follows on numerous warnings from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the service chiefs that the forward deployment of forces in high-tempo operations has led to cutbacks in funding for flying hours, maintenance of aircraft, and overall training for stateside troops.

Mattis put the onus on Congress. "We as a nation have got to come to grips with this," he said in unveiling the National Defense Strategy in January.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has often stated that more service members now are being killed in training than on the battlefield.

In an op-ed last September for The Washington Post, Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote, "A total of 185 service members lost their lives in non-combat accidents over the past three years -- more than four times as many as the 44 who were killed in combat."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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