This past Friday, an AH-64 Apache helicopter crashed during a training mission at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the latest in a slew of deadly mishaps from across the services in the past week. The accident comes on the heels of a damning report from the Military Times, documenting an alarming rise in accidents stretching back over four years. The Army, for its part, has seen relatively constant accident rates over the past four years, according to its official safety magazine, Flightfax, with accident rates between FY2013 and 2017 hovering between 0.72 and 1.52 Class A accidents per 100,000 flying hours -- far lower than anything Army Aviation has seen since it began tallying accidents in the early 1970s (p. 123).
(Note: A fact sheet published the Army Safety Center appears to portray a very different picture, suggesting that Class A mishaps were actually much higher in 2017 than reported in Flightfax, at 3.4 accidents per 100,000 flight hours. However, the fact sheet is so riddled with errors and inconsistencies it should probably be dismissed.)
Aviation is in a state of malaise across the armed forces, with nearly all of the services reporting problems with maintenance, training, and pilot retention. I’ve identified two potential culprits common to both of the services and a third unique to Army Aviation.
First, the services as a whole are simply not dedicating enough man-hours to maintenance. During the War on Terror, it was relatively simple for a deployed combat aviation brigade to keep aircraft in the air -- service members, augmented by a small army of contractors, could work around the clock, seven days a week, with few distractions. As a result, a typical brigade could fly well over 100,000 hours during a one-year deployment. That’s hardly the case at home, where service members must do the lion’s share of work. Our Army maintainers are hard workers, there’s no doubt about that. But a Soldier cannot dedicate as many hours to maintenance in an average day as a contractor.
In a typical year, there are just 256 days available for a Soldier to fix aircraft, after taking into consideration holidays, weekends, and other events. Now take away thirty days each year for leave, and a few more days due to the demands of PCS moves, NCO development schools, and training for additional duties. Now subtract days for Soldiers who may be ETSing, on sick leave, or taken from their units for duties such as gate guard or staff duty. When you’re finished, the average Army maintainer might only be able to turn wrenches on aircraft for less than two hundred days in a calendar year.
Now consider that on any given day, at least four hours are dedicated to physical training, morning hygiene, breakfast, and lunch, meaning that it takes a twelve-hour duty day to perform eight hours of maintenance. Now subtract the daily distractors -- medical appointments, mandatory training, weapons cleaning, and command inventories. Don’t forget formations, safety briefings, area beautification, and of course, “mandatory fun.”
Making matters more difficult is that the Army envisions future wars to look much different from those in Iraq and Afghanistan, with Army Aviation operating from tents in open fields instead of well-stocked forward operating bases. That means that Army maintainers must also devote countless hours to convoy training, weapons qualification, and setting up tents. Anecdotes are not data, but one aircraft maintainer estimated, in a recent Stars and Stripes article, that he only performed about twelve hours of actual maintenance in a week. I suspect he may be the norm, rather than the exception. Again, maintainers are routinely working full 12-hour duty days, but much of their time is devoted to tasks not involving aircraft maintenance.
This, in turn, drives a second problem: fewer man-hours devoted to maintenance mean fewer flyable aircraft, and fewer flyable aircraft mean that pilots are flying fewer hours, especially non-deployed units. Less training, in turn, can equal more mistakes. All four services have reported that pilots are struggling meet their flying hour minimums. This has become most apparent in the Marine Corps’ F/A-18 community, which has struggled with poor maintenance statistics, fewer flight hours allocated for training, and an increase in accidents.
A third problem, unique to the Army, stems from the Aviation Restructuring Initiative, which, among other things, divested the Kiowa Warrior helicopter and replaced it with additional Apache helicopters culled, in part, from the National Guard. Experienced OH-58D Kiowa Warrior pilots suddenly became inexperienced Apache pilots. This, coupled with an increase in the number of brand-new Apache lieutenants and warrant officers graduating from Fort Rucker (where the AH-64 qualification course was shortened) means that there are too few senior Apache pilots to train too many junior pilots. As a RAND Corp study into the US Air Force discovered, this causes senior pilots to consume flying hours which would have ordinarily been used to train new aircrews. Many experienced AH-64 pilots are currently attending multiple rotations at the Combat Training Center -- in some cases, three month-long rotations in eight months -- because they are the only ones qualified to participate in the demanding training. Meanwhile, new pilots are left at their home station with few instructor pilots around to help train them. This is a problem which will eventually take years to fully resolve.
Where do we go from here?
For starters, we must find a way to apply more man-hours to fixing aircraft. Part of the solution may involve hiring contractors to supplement the work our crew chiefs are doing. In the meantime, leaders must do their part to allow maintainers to work in peace -- every non-maintenance related task we ask of our crew chiefs has a second-order effect with regards to the number of flight hours our pilots can fly. Though there is nothing inherently wrong with training maintainers on convoy operations, we must understand that Army Aviation can never be both fully Army and fully Aviation. Reconciling the two may require our community to do some serious introspection.
Finally, we must do something to alleviate the burden on our overworked AH-64 community and allow them to focus on training new aircrews. We might be wise to implement a “dwell time” program with regards to aircrews -- no pilot should participate in more than two CTC rotations in a calendar year (to include O/C augmentation). If this means less AH-64 participation at the JRTC, so be it. The AH-64 community must be allowed the opportunity to stop, take a breath, and work on building the force of the future.
Crispin Burke is a military officer. His views are his own and not those of the DoD.