Rising Accident Rates Taking Toll on Navy, Marine Aircraft Availability

RENO, Nev. — The accident rate for the major Class A mishaps in naval aviation is “trending up” and there has been a “major increase” in the more minor Class C accidents, which is aggravating the lack of aircraft availability the Navy and Marine Corps have been struggling to overcome, the Naval Safety Center commander reported.

The naval services are taking a series of steps to reverse the jump in Class C mishaps and aggressively working to develop better analytical tools to help prevent the major accidents, which result in the loss of aircraft or personnel or multi-million dollars in damage, Rear Adm. Mark Leavitt said Sept. 8.

Also, following a year-plus of multiple studies and corrective actions, naval aviation has made “good progress” in stopping the surprising increase in physiological episodes, or apparent shortage of oxygen in flight. “But it does remain our No. 1 safety concern,” Rear Adm. F. R. “Lucky” Luchtman, the head of the recently created Physiological Episode Action Team, said at the same forum during the annual Tailhook Convention of aircraft carrier aviators.

Leavitt said the Class A accidents in naval aviation this year have “exceeded last year’s numbers,” with 14 mishaps. “The rate is trending up.”

The Marines, however, “are doing much better this year, down to five” Class As, compared to 12 last year, he said.

Although some members of Congress have blamed the higher Class A rates to the age of aircraft and poor maintenance due to the budget reductions, Leavitt said the accident investigations are “still finding between 60 to 70 percent causal factors are human errors. We’ve not seen a spike of material problems.”

In the Class C mishaps, “this is not a good news story,” Leavitt said, but did not provide numbers for what he called a “major increases.”

Although the C mishaps inflict damages costing a comparatively low $50,000 to $500,000, they can take an aircraft out of service for months, which is aggravating the problems of too few available planes, he said.

Service studies have attributed the increase in the aviation version of fender benders to violations of established procedures by squadron maintenance personnel, which may reflect a lack of experience in the midgrade enlisted maintainers because of faster advancement in rank during a drive to keep more Sailors in service, he said.

The studies also indicate a “breakdown in team work,” which has led to efforts to get more “khaki leadership out on flight line, the flight deck,” Leavitt said, referring to chief petty officers and commissioned officers.

In an effort to reduce the major mishaps, Leavitt said the Safety Center has created a new office focusing on developing analytic tools to provide more data on causes and related factors, which can be shared with squadron commanders to help avoid accidents, he said.

The physiological episode team Luchtman leads is attacking the alarming number of incidents in which pilots in the F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, EF-18G Growlers and the T-45 and T-6 training aircraft have reported in-flight conditions similar to hypoxia or oxygen shortage.

Luchtman said intensive studies by the Safety Center, NASA and others led to some modifications to the aircraft oxygen supply systems and indications that poorly fitted pilot’s equipment cause some of the incidents.

They also are adding systems to the aircraft that can measure the quality of oxygen being provided to the pilots, he said and are seeking even better devices to monitor the oxygen flow. They are working with the Air Force and allies who fly similar aircraft and have had some of the same problems.