On Dec. 13, when a Marine Corps MV-22B Osprey landed in the water just shy of Camp Schwab in Okinawa, it became yet another high-profile incident for an aircraft that has had more than its share. The aircraft is notorious after four high-profile mishaps during its development phase, including one that claimed the lives of 19 Marines in 2000. After that disaster, the Osprey program was revamped and the aircraft substantially redesigned. It became the mainstay of the Marines’ vertical lift and Air Force special operations.
As a 20-year Marine aviator, I started my career in the Osprey’s predecessor, the CH-46E Sea Knight. I felt safer in the V-22 than I did in the CH-46. Its mishap rate is comparable to any other platform in the inventory, but I worry that my successors are not as safe though — not because of the aircraft, but because the system is not giving them enough time to train.
What most stories about the accident in Okinawa do not pay sufficient attention to is that the aircraft struck an aerial refueling drogue with its proprotors — in other words, it hit part of the refuelling equipment trailing the tanker with its propellers. The underlying reasons that happened will be the subject of a detailed investigation. Undoubtedly that investigation will describe a laundry list of causal factors ranging from the flight schedule to the unit’s operating procedures to how much sleep the pilots had the night before to what they had for breakfast.
The story here is almost certainly some form of human error on the part of the aircraft’s crew. Those human errors are a lot more likely when pilots don’t get enough practice. A well-practiced crew can usually overcome the friction points that happen in military aviation, be that weather, fatigue, or personal stress. One that isn’t is a lot more likely to have severe problems when events go astray.
What’s very unlikely is that the aircraft itself was to blame. That the V-22 Osprey was involved should not be the takeaway from this story. The most important takeaway is that this incident is very similar to others across the Marine Corps recently. There has been an alarming trend in Marine aviation — a high rate of mishaps, many, if not most, involving aircrew error.
Four Marine F/A-18s have been involved in Class A mishaps (involving $2 million, loss of aircraft, or death) just since this October, two due to a mid-air collision. Last January, 12 Marines died in a midair collision involving two CH-53Es. Another CH-53E recently suffered severe damage after striking a building. The mishap rate in the first three months of this fiscal year is an astonishing 11.26 per 100,000 flight hours. For the last 12 months, it’s been 5.0. There are well above historical norms, though the Naval Safety Center optimistically rates fiscal year 2017 thus far as the “36th best year in history at this rate.” 36th? Time to celebrate!
The Corps’ message should have been to highlight the readiness and training problems that Marine aviation as a whole is experiencing. This latest incident should serve as another warning that Marine aviation training has reached a dangerously poor level. These accidents were not the result of enemy action, but occurred during normal operations and training.
No Marine aircraft is a deathtrap. Or rather, any aircraft can be a deathtrap if you only get to fly it a few times a month, then have to perform demanding missions in order to pack in required training for an upcoming deployment.
Even tasks that are the bread-and-butter of military flight operations, like the aerial refueling that claimed the Osprey in Okinawa, are extraordinarily dangerous by civilian standards. They are only made safe by continuous practice.
The Marines are known for doing the extraordinary so often that it has become routine. When pilots don’t get sufficient stick time to be confident in the fundamentals, the extraordinary isn’t routine, it’s pushing one’s luck. According to a Marine Corps source, as of Spring 2016, Osprey pilots were getting an average of 15.3 of 16.2 hours required to maintain proficiency in required skills. CH-53E pilots were getting 10.7 of 15.1. Hornet pilots were getting a truly abysmal 8.8 of 15.7.
Fifteen hours a month is the minimal acceptable level to safely fly military aircraft. At least 20 are required to become confident and proficient. Over the course of my 20-year career, I personally saw my flight time go from an average of 25 per month at the beginning to less than 20 by the time I left in 2015. Now it’s sunk even lower, except that today’s aviators don’t have a foundation of years of consistent flying. Many have known nothing but sporadic training, interrupted by brief periods of frenetic operations while deployed.
Even when the average number of flight hours per pilot reaches the minimum of 15, it doesn’t mean that the aviation community is safe, because that distribution is heavily skewed. A current squadron commander I spoke with told me he is forced to triage his pilots. His key instructors and flight leaders who will fill key roles on the next deployment get what they need, but everyone below that gets whatever is left over, and is barely enough to keep the squadron qualified to fly its assigned mission sets.
His squadron “hog board” of pilot flight hours showed his top five senior instructors averaging a decent 24 hours a month. His bottom five, mostly lieutenants, all had less than five hours a month. At five hours a month, every flight is just relearning what one forgot since the last time. Those lieutenants are going to have to step up soon. Ironically, his top five are planning on leaving the Corps in the near future. Their replacements will come from among those getting less than five hours a month of training.
This isn’t getting better until more aircraft are ready to fly. The budget squeeze brought about by the continuing sequester plus the demands of continuing deployments have brought aircraft readiness dangerously low. The new aircraft, like the MV-22B, the UH-1Y, and the AH-1Z don’t have enough parts and maintainers to keep them flying. The old ones, like the F/A-18 and CH-53E, are just worn out. According to the head of Marine aviation, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the Corps is making efforts to bring readiness back to healthy levels, but that depends greatly on the success of acquisitions like the F-35 and CH-53K.
President-elect Trump says he has plans to increase the Corps by 8,000 to 12,000 Marines. Hopefully within that plan is one to restore readiness in what the Corps already has first. Otherwise, we’re just sending players into varsity games after attending JV practice.
No pilot goes to fly giving anything other than his utmost. The ones who died bet their lives on the fact that the Corps gave them sufficient training to extricate them from almost any situation. That their training was insufficient to do so is not their fault, but ours.
CORRECTION: Twelve Marines died in a midair collision involving two CH-53Es in Jan. 2016. An earlier version of this item incorrectly said the accident occurred in March. (1/16/17; 11:45 am)