Army, Marines Barreling Toward One Of The Deadliest And Costliest Years For Aviation Accidents

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Michael Schwenk)

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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Incidents of the costliest and most deadly aviation accidents among Army and Marine Corps surged in the past year, data reviewed by the Daily Caller News Foundation shows, as the Pentagon maintains it is making progress toward minimizing the most serious mishaps.

Both the Army, including Guard and Reserve units, and Marine Corps have experienced historically high rates of so-called “Class A mishaps” and are at risk of enduring the most expensive and fatal aviation year in recent history, the data shows. The military defines Class A mishaps as aviation accidents resulting in loss of airframe, loss of life or at least $2.5 million in damages.

The spike in accidents comes as the force has shrunk overall, putting increased strain on pilots and aircraft maintainers, while the average number of years of experience across the aviation community has also fallen, according to experts and media reports.

Army Accidents Skyrocket

The Army has already seen 11 Class A mishaps resulting in 9 fatalities through the second quarter of fiscal year 2024, which began in October, exceeding the total class A mishap number for all of fiscal year 2023, according to data reported in the April issue of FlightFax, an Army newsletter for aviators. That year, there were 10 Class A mishaps killing 14 aircrew. (RELATED: Biden’s Army Chief Can’t Explain Why Race Should Be A Factor In Recruiting)

Moreover, fiscal year 2023 had a Class A mishap rate of 1.08, significantly higher than the five-year average of 0.85, according to FlightFax. However, that number pales in comparison to the current fiscal year mishap rate of 2.95 per 100,000 flight hours.

“You have the worst record over the past 18 months,” Democratic California Rep. John Garamendi told Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James Mingus at a Tuesday hearing in reference to the rash of flight accidents. “What are you doing about it?”

Two fatal Army National Guard AH-64 Apache crashes in February drove leaders to block all helicopter units from flying, a process known as a stand-down, according to a press release. Aviators could resume flight operations once they had completed required training, spokesperson Maj. Jennifer Staton explained to the DCNF.

Then, in March, a UH-72 Lakota helicopter crashed, killing two National Guard soldiers and a U.S. Border Patrol agent, and wounding another soldier.

As of Tuesday, 90% of the units had returned to flight, Gen. Mingus said Tuesday.

More than 12 Army aviators died in helicopter crashes in the first six months of fiscal year 2023, prompting a service-wide aviation stand down that was eventually lifted. But accidents kept happening, and the service ended the fiscal year with 14 dead soldiers in 10 Class A mishaps, more than double the average fatality numbers and the highest since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, Defense News reported, citing data from the Army Combat Readiness Center.

A year later, the service is looking at a year with the most frequent Class A mishaps in recent history and quickly approaching the deadliest, according to FlightFax and an Army Combat Readiness Center annual report.

Most of the most serious accidents in 2023 happened with AH-64 Apache helicopters, according to the 2023 review.

Army budget documents show an increased allotment of funds for flying hours between fiscal year 2020 and fiscal year 2023, but the Army Combat Readiness Center’s annual assessment shows total flight hours dropped in 2020. Class A through Class C mishap rates also increased during that period.

The Army requested funds for flight hours in 2024 that are the same as 2021 levels, the documents show. The Army only requested funds to allow crews 8.7 hours of flight time for fiscal year 2025, the lowest in the previous five years.

The lower number probably stems from an overall limited budget forcing the Army to make difficult trade-offs, retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the DCNF.

“In order to execute flying hours, a lot of things have to come together: aircraft have to be available in sufficient quantities and readiness, crews and pilots have to be trained and available, and sufficient numbers of maintenance personnel must be present. Especially in the case of the National Guard, bringing all those factors together has proven to be hard,” Spoehr said.

Most of the mishaps in fiscal year 2023, just as in previous years, are attributable to “human error,” Army spokesperson Jason Waggoner told the DCNF.

“Human error is typically reduced when pilots and crews are able to fly more hours and get more repetitions in. Increasing the number of hours flown by crews is not as simple as just budgeting more money for operations,” Spoehr said.

“Spatial disorientation,” a condition when a pilot misjudges the distance between the aircraft and the ground or other objects, is the primary human error responsible for aviator fatalities, according to the March issue of FlightFax. Shortfalls in existing spatial disorientation prevention measures sparked an ongoing review of training.

When the Army investigated the cause of increasing aviation accidents during the 2023 stand-down, officials found that pilots and aviation warrant officers were significantly less experienced than they were during the period of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Defense News. Mishaps tend to occur when a lower-ranking non-commissioned officer is in charge, compounded with changes to the training environment that rendered even regular training flights more risky.

Spatial disorientation got worse in 2023, with the major accidents in that year and early 2024 all taking place in the more challenging environments, such as flying at night using night-vision devices, flying in formation and over snow or water, Defense News reported. Pilots are getting fewer hours of practice time as well, the Army found. Units are unable to use up all the flight hours Congress has budgeted for due to other limitations, including not having enough crew members.

“Regular Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve aviation formations are suitably manned according to Army manning guidance to meet mission requirements for maintenance and support of Army aircraft,” Waggoner told the DCNF.

In April, the Army rolled out an aviation “stand-up” across the force, Gen. Mingus said Tuesday. The extra training was intended to boost crew member training and awareness without grounding them and further cutting into opportunities to get into the air.

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Todd E. Mahar, left, commanding officer, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and Sgt. Maj. Jared B. Game, sergeant major, 24th MEU, with senior leadership from Marine Aircraft Group 26, prepare to board an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 (Reinforced), 24th MEU for its initial return to flight on Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, March 14, 2024. This initial flight is part of our Aviation Combat Element’s deliberate and methodical approach to returning their MV-22’s to full operational capacity. The MV-22 Osprey’s revolutionary capability is a cornerstone of the 24th MEU Marine Air Ground Task Force, enhancing the MEU’s ability to conduct assault support operations and overall maneuverability across a range of military operations.

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Todd E. Mahar, left, commanding officer, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), and Sgt. Maj. Jared B. Game, sergeant major, 24th MEU, with senior leadership from Marine Aircraft Group 26, prepare to board an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 (Reinforced), 24th MEU for its initial return to flight on Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, March 14, 2024. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ryan Ramsammy)

A Bad Year For The Marine Corps

Flight incidents among Marine Corps aviators also appeared to take place at an alarming frequency in recent months.

In fiscal year 2024, Class A mishaps have already struck far above average, Naval Safety Command statistics show. As of April 9, the Marine Corps sustained a sharp increase in Class A mishaps for the first and second quarters of 2024 with a rate of 4.31 per 100,000 flight hours, compared to a 10-year average of 2.24.

Data provided to the DCNF from Naval Safety Command showed the V-22 was involved in 3 Class A mishaps, more than any other manned air platform. However, incidents involving the H-53 Super Stallion helicopter incurred the most fatalities during the same time period — five Marines died in February when a CH-53E went missing in California and was later discovered; the data was still inconclusive as to what went wrong to produce the accident. (RELATED: ‘Mishap Ship’: Troubled Marine Corps Vessel Received Major Award For Battle Readiness)

In August 2023, three Marines died and 20 more were injured when an Osprey crashed during a multinational training exercise in Australia. Another pilot died after his FA/18 Hornet crashed amid a training flight near Air Station Miramar, California, that month.

The Marine Corps’ Ospreys have returned to flight again through a tiered approach, with modified procedures intended to prevent the same kind of accidents leading to Marine deaths, Capt. Alyssa Myers, a Marine Corps spokesperson, told the DCNF. After finishing emergency procedures training, pilots and crew members are conducting warm-up flights to regain familiarity with the craft, Myers explained. Then squadrons will work with their experienced instructor pilots and crew and conduct flights with copilots before delving into more mission-specific skills training.

Service leaders grounded MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft — a blend between a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft — across multiple services in December after one of the Air Force’s units crashed. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps each operate versions of the Osprey.

“Due to the size of the fleet and number of units, the Marine Corps implemented a tiered approach to deliberately return capability to squadrons,” Myers said. “This process ensures the Marine Corps is able to deploy fully capable units in support of all assigned global mission requirements, while simultaneously ensuring non-deploying units can regain currency and conduct the necessary training to overcome training delays incurred by the 90-day grounding.”

Stopping flights is not an option, however.

“​The MV-22’s unique capabilities, such as its long-range operational reach and air refueling capabilities, render it an indispensable asset for crisis response and force-projection and sustainment missions,” Myers said.

The Marine Corps was also hundreds of pilots short at the end of 2022, manning a force of less than half of what it needed to operate its F-35s and other aircraft, former Commandant Gen. David Berger told Congress in April 2023.

“The Marine Corps utilizes highly reliable maintainers and aircrew, conducts exhaustive maintenance, extensively trains pilots, and at every step puts in place safeguards and precautions to ensure a high degree of aviation safety. Marine Corps aviation support units are sized and manned at levels equivalent to historical levels with regard to the number of aircraft in each squadron,” Myers told the DCNF.

The Pentagon Says It’s Trying To Turn Things Around

The cycle of deterioration underlying aviation accidents has been ongoing for years.

A 2020 commission organized by Congress found that experience levels among aviators and maintainers had fallen. Pilots were spending too much time on outdated simulators instead of getting in the air, and they were forced to focus on administrative duties amid a relentless speed of operations.

“Junior pilots and maintainers are starting their careers a lap behind, and then never catching up, all while their units buckle under the initial stress of getting them up to speed,” the report stated. Then, the cycle repeats.

The final report contained 25 recommendations on ways to improve flight safety, including giving pilots more flight hours, finding ways to reduce strain on maintenance personnel and creating a Joint Safety Council to synchronize mitigating efforts across the services.

Efforts to implement most of the recommendations are ongoing, a Pentagon spokesperson told the DCNF. A Joint Safety Council first met in August 2022 and ” is already paying dividends in how the Department tracks and collaborates on joint mishaps,” the spokesperson added.

For example, after the Air Force Osprey crash in Japan that killed eight aviators in November 2023 and contributed to the decision to ground all V-22s, the council met to gain perspective, coordinate communication efforts and discuss what the services should do in the short term, the spokesperson told the DCNF.

Mingus, the Army vice chief, said the service plans to increase flight hours from 202,000 to 225,000 in the 2025 budget.

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