Air Force Wants to Predict Aviation Accidents Before They Happen

Flames and smoke rise from an Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane after it crashed near Savannah, Ga., Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (James Lavine via AP)
Flames and smoke rise from an Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane after it crashed near Savannah, Ga., Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (James Lavine via AP)

The U.S. Air Force is using predictive analysis at its test centers to scrutinize data trends in an effort to stop the next aviation mishap, a top general said Tuesday.

The idea is to accumulate data and check for something that stands out on an aircraft's maintenance overhaul that may help predict or define a root cause for the next big incident, said Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command.

Her comments come as the service is conducting a one-day stand-down ordered by Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on May 7 to give units "the chance to identify issues that they can work and elevate up to the [major command level] ... and the Air Staff if necessary," said Maj. Gen. John T. Rauch, chief of safety for the service and commander of the Air Force Safety Center.

Pawlikowski added that she has also ordered the service's test centers to "take a look at all of the data sources that we have that we use on a regular basis to look at the health of our weapons systems."

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"We have a program called the Air Force Structural Integrity program, and that is an effort that we've been doing for 40 years, which uses predictive models and analysis to look at where we might have structural issues that we want to look at and do inspections or do repairs on before we get to an accident," Pawlikowski told reporters during a breakfast in Washington, D.C.

"I've asked that we do an 'out of cycle look' to see what has happened there, and ... I've asked the sustainment center [to report] on what they have seen as airplanes have come in," she said.

For example, if a KC-135 Stratotanker comes in for routine maintenance at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, Pawlikowski said the service is monitoring whether that aircraft stays a little longer due to "unplanned work," and whether other tankers going through the depot show a similar trend.

"So I ask them to go in and look at that data: Are there places where we've seen any spikes or unusual behavior?" she said.

The test and sustainment centers have until July to report their findings, she said, adding that the Air Force's approach has been "not to panic" amid a recent bout of aviation accidents.

The service recently said Class-A mishaps -- defined as involving fatalities, severe damage totaling $2 million or more, or a complete loss of the aircraft -- have declined in recent years, but Pawlikowski noted that a spike in accidents since January has "got our attention."

"We don't consider it a crisis, but we have elevated interest in making sure that we aren't missing anything," she said. "Safety is always first."

Pawlikowski said she is skeptical whether cuts under sequestration are directly linked to recent accidents. The Air Force has lost 18 service members since November, including nine WC-130 aircrew in a fatal crash outside Savannah, Georgia.

As of May 2, manned aviation Class-A mishaps have increased 48 percent in fiscal 2018, officials said.

"Our systems are designed to failsafe, [meaning] if under sequestration we had to reduce the number of airplanes that went through the depot, which would mean some planes would be flying longer without their regularly preventive maintenance, we would not fly those airplanes in an unsafe mode," Pawlikowski said.

"We would ground that particular airplane until we were able to do that maintenance. So even though do we did take reductions in areas with respect to sustainment during sequestration, I would be surprised to find a direct correlation," she said.

Separately, lawmakers recently approved language in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would require an independent national commission on military aviation safety.

The House Armed Services Committee on May 9 voted to include an independent legislative body to assess the spike in accidents between 2013 and 2018, as well as physiological episodes. The legislation will come before the Senate Armed Services Committee for markup later this month.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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