F/A-18 crashes rise rapidly as budget constraints have led to overused planes, undertrained pilots
WASHINGTON — A year ago, Navy and Marine Corps leaders gave a dire warning to Congress: Budget cuts have hurt nondeployed units and could cost lives during a major conflict.
The losses happened, but not in combat. Pilots died training at home.
Since May, four F/A-18 Hornet or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet crashes involving nondeployed units killed two pilots and destroyed five planes.
The crashes are the latest in a sharp increase in military aviation accidents overall for nondeployed squadrons, which have absorbed the bulk of budget cuts through reduced training and delayed maintenance at home so the best aircraft and personnel can be used on the front lines.
In 2011, Congress passed the Budget Control Act that instituted automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration. By March 2013, the across-the-board cut to all spending programs started to take effect.
The Defense Department’s operations and maintenance account, which pays for flight training and repairs on aircraft, lost $20.3 billion that year, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Two workhorse aircraft of military aviation — the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet — were affected.
Since 2012, the number of major Navy and Marine Hornet and Super Hornet accidents — incidents causing at least $50,000 in damage and in some cases leading to injury, death or the loss of the $60 million aircraft — skyrocketed 44 percent, according to data collected by the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.
“It’s extremely clear what’s happened,” said California-based Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet pilot Lt. “Versace,” who asked to be identified by his call sign only because he was not authorized to speak on the issue. “These aircraft have reached their life span and they continue to extend their life spans for another few thousand flight hours, which hasn’t worked for them due to significant budget decreases. Yet they continue to run these jets that have caused catastrophic incidents.”
After the most recent F/A-18 Hornet crash Aug. 2 at Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada, some experts who watch military readiness said Navy and Marine aviation is in trouble.
“I believe naval aviation is at risk of eventual systemic failure,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Chris Harmer, now a senior naval analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “Either funding needs to be significantly increased in order to restore airframe availability and pilot proficiency and support current operations, or operational tempo needs to be drastically reduced.”
The Navy and Marines rank their aviation accidents as mishaps, with the top three most damaging as Class A through C. Class A is the highest level of crash and means a pilot was killed or permanently disabled or the aircraft sustained at least $2 million in damage.
Since sequestration, the number of Class A through C mishaps involving Hornets or Super Hornets has climbed from 57 in fiscal year 2012 to 82 as of Aug. 2 of this fiscal year, according to data from the Naval Safety Center.
Not only Hornets or Super Hornets have been affected. Across the board, the number of Navy and Marine aircraft lost in accidents has doubled during the first 11 months of fiscal year 2016 compared to the same time in 2015. Twenty aircraft had been destroyed as of Aug. 29, compared to 10 aircraft during the same time in 2015, according to Naval Safety Center data obtained by Stars and Stripes.
But attention has focused on the Hornets after a recent string of crashes.
On Aug. 2, a Navy pilot safely ejected after the F/A-18C he was flying experienced an engine fire at Nevada’s Naval Air Station Fallon. Flights are required to test aircraft after having certain engine or cockpit repairs or if the plane hasn’t been flown in 30 days, according to the Navy.
Marine pilot Maj. Richard Norton was killed July 28 when the F/A-18C he was flying crashed near Twentynine Palms in California during a nighttime training mission.
A crash in June of another F/A-18C during a Blue Angels practice flight killed Marine Capt. Jeff Kuss.
Two Super Hornet F/A-18/F aircraft collided in May during a training mission off the coast of North Carolina. The four crewmembers ejected and were rescued.
The role of flight hours
Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for Marine Corps aviation, told lawmakers in July that the spike in Class A mishaps involving the Hornet looked worse than it is because the service was flying fewer hours.
“It’s actually kind of on par where it has been in the past,” he said. But with a smaller number of flight hours, “every mishap makes this bump up a lot.”
However, the Marines and Navy have seen their overall number of flight hours – deployed and home training – stay relatively the same during the past few years, according to data from the Naval Safety Center.
Combat demands on aircraft remain high and are the priority, the Navy and Marine Corps said. Since Operation Inherent Resolve began in late 2014, aircraft from the Navy’s carrier strike groups have taken on an increasing amount of the combat load. When the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt ended its deployment to the Middle East in late 2015, it had set a record for the number of bombs it had dropped against the Islamic State group. When the USS Harry S. Truman took its place, the Truman set new records again, not only in bombs dropped but in total flight hours.
That means even fewer hours available at home.
“Regrettably … you’re going to see [nondeployed] pilots that aren’t flying very much,” Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director of Navy air warfare, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
Manazir told committee members that the minimum number of hours a Navy pilot can fly each month to stay safe is 11.
“We call that the tactical hard deck,” he said. “Studies have been done by the safety center that say, ‘If pilots fly less than 11 on a regular basis, there is a chance that mishaps will go higher.’”
Versace said he’s noticed the difference in the amount of time that he gets to fly.
“A lot has changed since I first started flying with the Navy,” he said. “Budgets are taking a significant toll on many military personnel. Many aviators have had their hours decreased. Personally, since flying the F/A-18E/F for 41/2 years, my flight hours have annually decreased by 15 percent.”
The Marines saw its low point for F/A-18 Hornet flight hours last summer, when it averaged 8.8 hours per month per pilot for nondeployed squadrons, Davis said. Increased funding and an emphasis to improve readiness has upped that average to 11.1 as of August 2016, said Capt. Sarah Burns, a spokeswoman for the Marines.