Aviation Accident Spike Has Services Scrambling for Solutions

A firetruck sprays foam over the remains of an Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane from Puerto Rico that crashed near the intersection of state highway Georgia 21 and Crossgate Road in Port Wentworth, Ga., Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)
A firetruck sprays foam over the remains of an Air National Guard C-130 cargo plane from Puerto Rico that crashed near the intersection of state highway Georgia 21 and Crossgate Road in Port Wentworth, Ga., Wednesday, May 2, 2018. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News via AP)

The military service safety centers are combing through data to uncover any common trends that may be contributing to a recent spike in aviation accidents within the Defense Department.

During a House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee hearing, the heads of the safety centers told lawmakers they are working on determining whether problems require a material, technological or human fix, adding they meet weekly to discuss solutions.

The safety centers release about 100 recommendations monthly on average, but some solutions can take years to complete.

"If you dig into one of those recommendations, it may be a significant material solution to something that takes years to field," said Maj. Gen. John Rauch, Air Force chief of safety. Rauch testified alongside Brig. Gen. David Francis, commanding general of the Army Combat Readiness Center, and Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt, commander of the Naval Safety Center.

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"And so that mishap recommendation will stay open and we will track those through" until a solution is made, he said. Leavitt and Francis agreed they used similar processes.

Board recommendations may result in new technologies. Rauch said the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System -- now implemented on the F-16 Fighting Falcon and coming to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter -- is an example of a solution the safety center will see through until the need is met.

Auto GCAS was developed in the 1990s, but early versions had data issues. It was re-engineered between 2003 and 2010, and, by 2016, was installed on more than 600 F-16 aircraft, "resulting in three confirmed reports that Auto GCAS saved both the pilot and aircraft," according to an Air Force release.

The service at the time said Auto GCAS would not only save lives, but also "upward of 14 aircraft, and more than $530 million over the projected remaining service life of the F-16 inventory alone."

Some solutions could be implemented faster, Leavitt said, giving the example of Navy pilots experiencing physiological episodes in T-45 Goshawk trainer jets. Those episodes were the result of a gaseous oxygen problem, in which varying volumes of oxygen were distributed to crew members, he said.

The Navy fielded the CRU-123 solid-state oxygen monitor on the T-45 to alert aircrew if delivery pressure falls, while also recording system performance and faults. Another solution has been to keep airflow all the way up.

The service plans to field an alternate oxygen supply system in the next fiscal year, Leavitt said.

Rauch warned that pilots are at higher risk in older aircraft.

"The environment that we live in with aging aircraft and the engineering that's required to sustain those aircraft … we are certainly setting up hazards there that have to be mitigated," he said.

As of May 2, manned aviation Class A mishaps in the Air Force had increased 48 percent in fiscal 2018 over the previous year, according to service data. Rauch on Wednesday said that number had increased to 53 percent in the wake of recent accidents.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, asked if there are any common factors among the accidents other than the fact aviation mishaps seem to be occurring more often, even if some mishap classifications have trended downward for some of the services.

For example, while the annual manned Class A mishaps statistics are up, the combined aviation Class A rate for the Air Force has been steadily decreasing. In April, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen "Seve" Wilson said 2014 and 2017 saw the fewest aviation accidents since fiscal 2008, skewing the overall trend downward.

"The commonality is that these things are falling out of the sky," Turner said. "But when you look at the instances themselves, are you finding commonality? What types of things … are evident?"

Francis said human factors account for more mishaps, roughly 76 to 80 percent, in the Army than degraded material in an aircraft, which accounts for roughly 15 to 19 percent of accidents.

The Air Force and Navy closely mimic the Army in those percentages, Leavitt and Rauch said.

"One of the things we're trying to do is get access to potentially other data from other sources that aren't under normal safety chains as well to see if there are some correlations between those things, as well as the human factors we're seeing," Rauch said.

All the services said they are refining or adjusting the way technicians and pilots learn tactics, techniques and procedures to prevent future mishaps.

The hearing comes weeks after lawmakers 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.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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