In response to the more than 6,000 U.S. noncombat military aviation accidents between 2013 and 2018, the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety (NCMAS) is recommending the creation of a Joint Safety Council to advise the deputy secretary of defense on safety issues.
Led by safety officials from the military services, the council would establish military aviation safety standards, collect and analyze safety data, and develop safety priorities.
“One of the reasons that the commission exists is that the answers didn’t exist to the many questions that were being asked on the Hill regarding physiological episodes, crashes increasing over a period of years,” NCMAS Vice Chairman Richard Healing, a former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), told reporters on Dec. 1. “They didn’t have the answers because they were not collecting all the data they could and analyzing it and coming out with a proactive, predictive capability after the [aviation accident] investigations are completed.”
The NCMAS’ final report said that the more than 6,000 military aviation mishaps between 2013 and 2018 resulted in 198 deaths and more than $9.41 billion in damages, including 157 destroyed aircraft, and that, while the commission was conducting its study, military aviation accidents resulted in the loss of another 26 lives, 29 aircraft, and $2.25 billion in damages.
Authorized by the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, NCMAS was the brainchild of Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), then the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and now its chairman (Defense Daily, November 7, 2018). The blue-ribbon commission was to study the increase in non-combat military aviation accidents between 2013 and 2018, attempt to find causes, and make recommendations on how to improve aviation safety.
The HASC readiness panel planned to hear testimony on the report from Healing and NCMAS Chairman Richard Cody on the afternoon of Dec. 3. Cody, a retired U.S. Army general, is a former AH-64 Apache pilot who helped spearhead Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The NCMAS report points to a number of pressing military aviation issues, including operations tempo (OPTEMPO) for contingencies/exercises/training deployments, OPTEMPO’s deleterious effects on readiness, and the lack of stable and predictable funding–a state of affairs that has come to pass due to a reliance on continuing resolution funding for 13 of the last 18 years.
The commission said that it made 80 site visits to 200 units and organizations and that it is “deeply troubled by the chronic fatigue we saw among these brave servicemembers.”
“The current operations tempo (OPTEMPO) is leading to unsafe practices and driving experienced aviators and maintainers out of the force,” the commission said.
“The tempo is particularly challenging for some career fields, such as flight engineers,” the report said. “One KC-10 squadron commander said the unit is well below required manning, in large part because so many people are leaving the unit. ‘Most of them are getting out before retirement date because of burnout. Deploy, deploy, deploy. TDY [temporary duty away from home] 270 days a year, the rest of the time they are in the [simulators]. They are getting one or two weekends a month to [be] with their families. A couple people just made tech sergeant, but they are never
going to sew it on because they’re done. Even promotion doesn’t keep them in.’”
Prospective AH-64D Apache pilots are relying significantly more on simulators in their program of instruction (POI)—a decrease in flight hours that has led to maintenance shortfalls, according to the NCMAS report. The report said that AH-64D POI flight hours fell from 95.5 per student in fiscal 2012 to 74.5 in fiscal 2018, while simulator hours grew from 48 per student in fiscal 2012 to 61.6 in fiscal 2018. The average experience level of AH-64 entry-level maintainers and senior supervisors fell more than 20 percent from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2018.
“What we found in the Apache, and the Army knows it and is working it, guys and gals were coming out of the Apache program with little or no night vision goggle time, little or no gunnery, and a lot more simulator time,” Cody told reporters on Dec. 1. “They [the Army] eliminated what a lot of us old graybeards consider ‘the bag’ where you’re forced to fly in a blacked out cockpit—the IHADSS [Integrated Helmet and Display Sight System] pilot night vision system. That [IHADSS elimination] put a burden on the units, especially units that were getting ready to deploy. They’d end up with 15 new guys and gals and had to expend an awful lot of their flying hours to get them up, which impacted their maintenance and other things.”
During the two-week “bag” phase of training, prospective Apache pilots flew with their cockpit windows covered and had to fly only by referencing the AH-64 helmet mounted display—Honeywell’s [HON] IHADSS, which provides a monocular display of the view outside the aircraft through sensors on the aircraft’s nose.
The NCMAS report noted that simulators, which are significantly less costly than flight hours, are vital to training but that simulators are frequently outdated.
Healing said that the military services are falling short of a recommended 11 to 15 hour flying hours per month per pilot.
“The pilots aren’t flying enough hours and the maintainers aren’t being allowed to fully spend 95 percent of their time doing the professional career that they selected,” Cody told reporters on Dec. 1.
Aging aircraft flying beyond their life cycles, such as U.S. Air Force KC-135 tankers, C-130s, and A-10s, are also a strain. Such aircraft are “having to go to the [Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.] boneyard to get parts because the industrial base is not there for them,” Cody said. “The one thing that really jumped out at me was despite this OPTEMPO, I was absolutely amazed at the talent, the leadership down at the O-5/O-6 level across the services.”
Healing said that the military aviation acquisition process needs to put pilots front and center, as the process has traditionally put pilot “force protection” last in the list of key performance parameters (KPPs).
“With modern aviation machines placing unprecedented stress on human physiology, the Department of Defense and the services must adopt an aggressive, proactive approach to understanding the physiological needs of aviators and to developing additional capabilities that improve the human-machine interface, including aircraft and cockpit design, testing, and subsequent modifications,” the report said.
The commission recommends that the military services’ safety centers provide input to DoD to “update and modify the Force Protection key performance parameters (KPP) to better incorporate Aviation Human Systems Safety.”
Healing said that a Force Protection KPP requiring the incorporation of aircrew as part of the aircraft system design from the outset “will force the acquisition community” to mandate improvements for pilot protection, such as physiological sensors on the pilot’s body.
Such a KPP update is to increase aircrew performance, protection, and survivability. Physiological events (PEs) surfaced in earnest in 2011 with pilot hypoxia in Air Force F-22 aircraft.
“Mishap prevention measures could include systems for ground and aircraft collision avoidance and spatial disorientation recovery,” the report said. “With the vital need for data collection to enhance predictive initiatives, the force protection KPP should also include cockpit voice and flight data recording systems as well as biometric sensing for the aircrew.”
Technology for such systems is already in the field and can provide life cycle cost savings, said the report, pointing to Block 40/50 F-16s’ Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto-GCAS), which prevents controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), responsible for 75 percent of F-16 pilot fatalities.
“Since being fielded in 2014, Auto-GCAS has prevented the crash of 10 aircraft and saved the lives of 11 Air Force pilots,” the report said. “Similarly, cockpit voice and flight data recorders and military flight operations quality assurance (MFOQA) systems…have proven to produce critical information needed to improve safety performance through incident/ mishap reconstruction, training, procedural changes, and predictive maintenance.”
Lockheed Martin Skunk Works [LMT], the Air Force Research Laboratory and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed Auto-GCAS.
“The PE events first started with the F-22,” Cody told reporters on Dec. 1. “Quickly, we started getting reports of the F-15, F-16, the [F/A-18] Hornets, the F-35, and then the training base–the OBOGS [Onboard Oxygen Generating System] issue with the T-6, T-45, T-38, and even some of the low-altitude aircraft, like the A-10s,” he said. “We asked the question, ‘What’s the leading cause of these physiological episodes? What has changed? Has the human changed? Have the machines changed to a point where the human-machine interface is different?’ Although initially the services struggled with unexplained, a majority of these PEs now have been explained with some pretty in-depth research that they have. That doesn’t mean they have the solutions, but at least they can explain them.”
The commission said that it discussed the PEs with a number of organizations and personnel, including the Air Force 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, Navy and Air Force medical researchers and NASA.
“We think that the services are on the right track, but what we need, in my mind, is to really understand these PEs,” Cody said. “You can’t just say, ‘Ok. It’s hypoxia or bad maintenance on the OBOGS. We need to treat the human in these high performance aircraft the way we treat the aircraft. We have so many sensing systems on the aircraft–strain gauges, all kinds of different monitoring systems–HUMS [Health and Usage Monitoring Systems] for the engines and other things. We need to do the same for the pilots.”
“As we talked to the different medical research people, they’re all on board,” Cody said.