Nine military aircraft have crashed in the past month killing 16 U.S. servicemembers, but the Pentagon said on Thursday it “is not a crisis” because the accidents involved different aircraft from various services, each of which has its own issues.
“This is not a crisis, but it is a crisis for each of these families and we owe them a full investigation and to understand what’s going on,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said during a press conference. “But these are across services and these are different individuals in different circumstances. I can guarantee you each service and the secretary will do their own investigation.”
A day earlier, a Puerto Rico Air National Guard WC-130 fell from the sky shortly after takeoff in Savannah, Ga., killing all nine passengers. In April, a Navy MH-60s Knighthawk, an Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon, Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and a P-3C Orion all suffered Class-A accidents without loss of life. On April 14, an Air Force stealthy F-22 Raptor landed on its belly because its landing gear would not lower.
Between April 3 and April 6, an Army AH-64 Apache helicopter, another F-16, and a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion crashed, killing two soldiers, an airman and four Marines. A total 27 U.S. servicemembers have been killed in Class-A aircraft mishaps - this year, more than have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Asked whether the accidents, all of which were non-combat related, were attributable to a lack of training, mechanical failure or insufficient maintenance, White said a thorough investigation of all possible causes is done by each service for each incident. There is no one overall cause and therefore no need for an inquiry into the spate of crashes, she said.
While military service leaders were careful not to blame a lack of funding – and the resultant decline in flying hours – for the recent uptick in crashes, White pointed a finger at a series of continuing resolutions that capped the Pentagon’s spending.
“Does it concern us? Listen, we lost a lot of time being on CR’s for several years and you can’t buy the time back,” she said. “You can’t buy the training hours back. You can’t buy the maintenance time back. You can’t do that.”
During a May 2 press conference on the state of U.S. naval forces, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer said there is no “direct correlation” between funding levels in recent years and an increase in Class-A mishaps.
“There is not enough data right now to tell you that there's an exact correlation,” Spencer said. “I will make the observation that, one, we are training people to the requirements necessary. Those additive hours that people have in the cockpit or doing their jobs are only going to help. So now we have the funds to do that. But that's kind of a brilliant flash of the obvious comment. I don't have data to give you a direct correlation.”
Spencer questioned whether there was a crisis, saying that the Navy is within the five-year average for the number of all Class A, B and C mishaps, with C denoting the least expensive non-fatal accident.
“The most important takeaway here is we have to have consistent funding to do our mission in the most effective and efficient manner,” Spencer said.
Both Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller said pilots are not made to fly unsafe or poorly maintained aircraft. Both members of the Joint Chiefs also said pilots are fully certified before takeoff, especially now that monthly flying hours are on the rise given the recent two-year budget deal.
“These [aircraft] are controlled by strict regulations. We're not violating any of those regulations,” Richardson said. “Those aircraft that we send pilots up in are fully certified to fly. The pilots that are -- we send in to fly them are fully certified for the missions that they conduct.”
Neller, who described 2017 as a “horrible year” for Marine Corps aviation, last year directly blamed budget uncertainty for degrading maintenance of legacy aircraft, which in turn took them off the flight line. That reduction in available aircraft resulted in fewer hours pilots flew to remain proficient, he said.
“Last year in aviation we had a horrible safety year in aviation, probably the worst year in 10 years,” Neller said at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December. “Most of the accidents had nothing to do with the material condition of the airplane, it had to do, in my view, with the fact that we were not getting enough hours.”
Neller maintains that the Marine Corps only allows properly maintained aircraft to fly, but refused on May 3 to “speculate” whether there is a correlation between funding and mishap incidence.
“We're flying more, and so we can't get better if we don't fly more,” he said. “The aircraft we're flying, they've been certified, and they're ready to go. We're not flying aircraft that aren't safe.”