Marine aviation deaths hit 5-year high

By James K. Sanborn, Staff writer

A fatal helicopter crash in North Carolina this week brought the total number of Marine aviation-related deaths to 18 so far this year — already a five-year high just nine months into 2015.

A CH-53E Super Stallion made a hard landing at Stone Bay near Camp Lejeune on Wednesday. Staff Sgt. Jonathan Lewis, one of about 20 Marines conducting a fast-roping exercise, was killed. Eleven other Marines were injured. Lewis was based out of Norfolk, Virginia, and was training to deploy with a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team.

The Sept. 2 incident, which remains under investigation, was one of at least 13 since May 2014 that resulted in death, injury or significant property damage. Five aircraft mishaps have left at least 18 Marines dead in 2015 — up 15 compared to the 2014 total. The last spike in aviation-related deaths occurred in 2012, when 15 Marines were killed in aircraft mishaps.

Marine officials say they’re committed to aircraft safety, but “by its very nature, there will always be inherent risk in military aviation,” said Maj. Paul Greenberg a Marine aviation spokesman at the Pentagon.

“That being said, the Marine Corps utilizes highly reliable aircraft, extensively trains pilots and aircrew, conducts exhaustive maintenance, and at every step puts in place safeguards and precautions to ensure a high degree of aviation safety,” he added.

The Marine Corps suffered its biggest loss of life this year in a single aviation accident when 11 troops, including seven members of Marine Corps Special Forces Operations Command, were killed when their UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter crashed off the coast of Florida during a training exercise. That and other fatal mishaps over the past year and a half have some observers concerned about the safety of military aircraft.

“I feel like this year has had a ridiculous amount of accidents,” Sgt. Mitchell Flowers, based out of Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, wrote on Marine Corps Times’ Facebook page Thursday.

Rachael Harrison, who identifies herself as a Marine mother on Facebook, called the current military aviation safety record unacceptable.

“Seems like every other month there is a helicopter related death in the Corps,” she wrote. “Safety issues and training of the pilots [must] be implemented.”

A troubling trend

The number of Marines killed in aviation mishaps this year is nearly double that of those killed in motorcycle accidents, a cause of death the Corps has worked diligently to reduce through mandatory new-rider and refresher courses.

The majority of aviation accidents involving Marines over the past 16 months have been tied to training exercises. Others occurred while Marines were deployed on humanitarian or crisis response missions. Here’s a look at some of those mishaps, many of which remain under investigation.

  • May 9, 2014: An AV-8B Harrier crashes outside Phoenix, Arizona. The pilot ejects, but the aircraft is destroyed.
  • June 1, 2014: A CH-53E is damaged during a hard landing at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
  • June 4, 2014: An AV-8B Harrier suffers a catastrophic oil leak. The pilot ejects near San Diego, but the aircraft catches fire and destroys three homes.
  • June 27, 2014: An AV-8B Harrier’s landing gear fails, forcing a Marine pilot to land aboard the amphibious assault ship Bataan using an emergency procedure.
  • Oct. 1, 2014: An MV-22 Osprey assigned to the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit plummets into the Persian Gulf before regaining control and landing on the amphibious assault ship Makin Island. One Marine is lost at sea.
  • Oct. 13, 2014: An electronic warfare pod detaches from an EA-6B Prowler during a Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, resulting in more than $2 million in damage.
  • Oct. 14, 2014: An AH-1W Super Cobra catches fire during ground checks following maintenance, resulting in at least $2 million in damage.
  • Jan. 24, 2015: A UH-1Y Venom crashes near Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, killing both pilots.
  • Feb. 22, 2015: Two pilots eject from an F/A-18 Hornet near Statenville, Georgia, moments before the aircraft crashes.
  • March 10, 2015: An Army UH-60 Blackhawk crashes into the ocean off the Florida panhandle killing seven MARSOC operators.
  • May 12, 2015: A UH-1Y Venom crashes in Nepal as Marines conduct humanitarian operations. Six Marines are killed.
  • May 17, 2015: An MV-22 Osprey makes a hard landing and catches fire in Hawaii, killing two Marines and injuring 20 more.
  • Sept. 2, 2015: A CH-53E Super Stallion makes a hard landing near Camp Lejeune. One Marine is killed and 11 injured.

Investigations into some of the accidents indicate they were caused by factors that include bad weather, pilot error, maintenance mistakes and mechanical failures.

No obvious pattern emerges, suggesting it could just be an unfortunate spate. While more Marines have been killed in aviation accidents over the past several years, the overall Class A mishap rate has held steady in recent years. That rate is calculated as a ratio of accidents causing more than $2 million in damage or loss of life per 100,000 hours flown.

Class A mishaps have fluctuated between about two and three accidents per 100,000 flight hours over the past several years, according to Marine Corps data.

Aging aircraft, shrinking budgets

As post-war defense budgets have taken a hit, Marine officials have expressed concern to lawmakers that less money means fewer training hours for Marine pilots.

Some legacy aircraft have also been kept in the fleet longer than originally planned as cuts have slowed the procurement of new planes or helicopters. For example, F/A-18C/D Hornets were slated to be phased out as they hit their engineered service life of 6,000 flight hours. Now they’ll be kept in service for up 10,000 flight hours, as the service awaits the delivery of more F-35B joint strike fighters.

Retired Marine Col. William Lawrence, who spent decades testing the Corps’ new fixed and rotary wing aircraft, now runs an aviation consulting business that analyzes civilian crashes. Budget pressures can stress airframes to the breaking point as they are pressed to fly beyond their expected service life, he said. They can also erode training and maintenance.

“One of the greatest requirements to being comfortable in the cockpit is getting enough flight time,” Lawrence said. “In civil and general aviation, a lot of accidents occur because pilots don’t have enough time in cockpit.”

Too few flight hours can affect maintainers, too, he said.

“The less flight hours for an aircraft, the less maintenance there is and the less familiar maintenance people are with the tasks they are expected to perform,” Lawrence said.

Marine aviation leaders have repeatedly voiced concern over the effects that inadequate budgets could have on training, maintenance and safety, particularly if they face additional spending cuts.

The Osprey, which suffered fatal mishaps in October and again in May, has had its own readiness problems. The Marine Corps made strides to improve standards for the MV-22B Osprey two years after a Defense Department Inspector General report found unsettling evidence the service was deploying squadrons that were not mission-ready. More specifically, it found that the maintenance and ready status of MV-22s at six squadrons was incorrectly or incompletely reported the majority of the time.

The investigators found that crews with the squadrons surveyed were marking the tiltrotor aircraft as ready to deploy even if they weren’t, due to inadequate training of maintenance personnel and lack of oversight from commanders. As a result, senior Defense Department or Marine Corps officials “could have deployed MV-22 squadrons that were not prepared for missions,” the report concluded.

The report found at least one instance in which an aircraft in California was repeatedly flown despite being restricted from flight operations.

Despite reporting problems and the high number of deaths, Marine leaders insist their aircraft are generally sound.

In May, following the loss of eight Marines in two different accidents involving a UH-1Y Venom in Nepal and an Osprey in Hawaii, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, the head of Marine aviation, assured reporters that the service’s aircraft fleet was safe and mission ready.

“We are not stopping [UH-1 Yankee] flights. We are not stopping MV-22 flights,” Davis said in May, adding that mishaps were isolated incidents and that investigators, “found nothing that would give me pause on the safety of these aircraft.”

Still, deployment-to-dwell ratio for Marine aviators and aircraft, and budgets, remain a concern. Weeks after the incidents in Nepal and Hawaii, Davis along with the Navy’s director of air warfare and other senior aviation leaders, pleaded with members of Congress to protect their budgets.

Davis said then that he ensures that every deploying aviation squadron has the aircraft and personnel it needs, but that comes at the cost of training, and hurts other aircraft maintenance and modernization projects.

Staff writer Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

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