US military deaths from aviation mishaps plummeted to a five-year low in 2019

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The number of major aviation mishaps and associated fatalities among U.S. service members across all four main branches fell dramatically in fiscal year 2019, according to data reviewed by Task & Purpose, a sign of progress amid growing worries of a crisis in U.S. military aviation.

The U.S. military saw 43 Class A mishaps and just 13 related fatalities in fiscal year 2019 across the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force, well below the U.S. military's six-year high of 52 incidents and 39 deaths in fiscal year 2018.

The Air Force and Navy saw a significant decline in both Class A mishaps — defined as an incident involving a loss of life or at least $2 million in damage to an aircraft — and mishap-related fatalities from 2018 to 2019.

By contrast, the Marine Corps saw Class A mishaps increase from 6 to 8 and fatalities from 5 to 8 between those years, while the Army saw a slight increase in Class A mishaps from 11 to 12 despite a decline in the resulting fatalities from 6 to 2.

The Air Force saw the most dramatic reduction in both Class A mishaps and fatalities, which fell from 23 to 15 mishaps and from 19 to just 2 fatalities from fiscal year 2018 to 2019, respectively, a decline that service officials attributed to a force-wide operational safety review initiated in mid-2018.

"Leaders reviewed past mishaps to identify trends, evaluate flightline supervision, assess planning processes, examine flightline operations to identify gaps or seams, and ensure decisions regarding acceptable risks were being made at the appropriate level," said Keith Wright, an Air Force Safety Center spokesman.

"Overall, statistics tend to fluctuate from year to year so the service looks at trends within the data to see if there are significant changes and, more importantly, to determine if there are common issues," he added. "We did not identify any one systemic issue across the force with this uptick in aviation mishaps. What we were able to do is engage the force on safety."

The Air Force's review came on the heels of an April 2018 Military Times investigation that found that at least 133 U.S. service members had died in mishaps between fiscal years 2013 and 2017 as the number of Class A mishaps involved aircraft across the armed forces ballooned by nearly 40 percent.

The investigation attributed the dramatic increase in major aviation mishaps to the 2013 budget sequestration and resulting cuts to the Pentagon budget, which resulted in a lack of availability of aircraft and, in turn, a lack of necessary training hours required to keep pilots in top shape.

The month after the Military Times investigation dropped, nine Puerto Rico National Guard airmen with the 156th Airlift Wing were killed in the crash of their WC-130 in Savannah, Georgia, prompting the Defense Department to reassure reporters that there was, in fact, no crisis facing U.S. military aviation.

"This is not a crisis," then-Pentagon Press Secretary Dana White said told reporters at the time. "But it is a crisis for each of these families, and we owe them a full investigation, and to understand what's going on. But these are across services, and these are different individuals and different circumstances."