Issue Date: September 06, 2004
No more errors
11 months. 15 crashes. 15 fatalities. Here’s what the Corps is doing to crack down
By Christian Lowe
Times staff writer
One night in early December, an AV-8B Harrier with Marine Attack Squadron 211 crashed at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. The pilot ejected as he approached the runway for a landing, later citing “controllability problems.”
A top Marine commander thought there was more to this crash than just potential pilot error. The crash got the commander’s attention because it was clear his subordinates were not doing their jobs.
“In my view, there were supervisory gaps” that contributed to the crash, Maj. Gen. Keith Stalder, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing commander, said Aug. 26. “I told my commanders that if you do something like this, you’re going to be gone, and probably some of the people who work for you are going to be gone.
“I did that … to make them understand where I come from on the issue of accountability.”
That Harrier was the third Marine Corps aircraft to crash in the new fiscal year, and it was the first in a rash of accidents in what has so far been one of the worst years for Marine Corps aviation safety in more than a decade.
Moreover, the Dec. 3 crash served as an example of what has gone wrong with Marine Corps aviation this year — a year that has seen 15 severe accidents and 15 deaths. The vast majority of this year’s crashes occurred during routine training flights and weren’t the result of mechanical problems.
By comparison, the Corps last year suffered 11 major flight accidents, four less than this year, with many the result of combat in Iraq. That compounds the frustration of top Corps leaders because many of this year’s crashes stem from pilot error and simple lack of attention to detail.
After a rash of F/A-18 Hornet crashes in June and July, Marine Commandant Gen. Mike Hagee sent a harshly worded message to his commanders demanding action. Soon after, Lt. Gen. Mike Hough, deputy commandant for aviation, fired off a similar memorandum to his subordinates expressing frustration with the circumstances of the accidents and pointing to a lack of leadership at all levels — even his own.
“I absolutely feel I’m personally responsible for this; I take it very personally,” Hough said in an Aug. 12 interview at his Pentagon office. “I also feel I am professionally responsible for this. I’m embarrassed.
“I wish I would have recognized this sooner.”
Now, instead of simply penalizing junior aviators for making costly mistakes, the Corps is going to hold aviation leaders accountable when accidents happen.
Senior leaders hope more oversight, adherence to tough standardized practices and new emphasis on basic flight operations will help change the culture of Marine aviation from one of complacency about safety to one of vigilance.
Poor leadership blamed
Hough’s frustration means that squadron, group and detachment commanders, and other aviation leaders, had better watch their six. Senior aviation officials believe that this year’s high accident rate is the direct result of poor leadership and lack of attention to the basics of flying. For example, the fatal crashes of two F/A-18 Hornets over three days in late June occurred as each plane was in the midst of a routine flight.
Aviation officials vow to hold commanding officers accountable for mistakes of management and oversight — there’s no excuse for allowing pilots who don’t know the basics to take to the air to perform complex missions.
“We’re not having problems in the tactical arena, we’re having them in admin — in getting to and from the range,” Hough said.
So far this year, Hough has presided over 44 field flight performance boards to determine whether an aviator involved in an accident should keep his wings.
In one case, Hough recommended that the commander of a Harrier detachment with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit lose his wings after a pilot under his command ditched a Harrier in the Atlantic after running out of gas on a training mission in June 2002.
The new focus on leadership and accountability also led Stalder to take away an aviator’s wings after he assumed command of 3rd MAW in late May.
The Corps’ rate of “Class A” aviation accidents — those that result in at least $1 million in damages or the loss of life — now stands at 5.04 per 100,000 flight hours. The fact that the rate is up from 2.9 last year — when the Corps took part in the invasion of Iraq — is what caught the commandant’s attention.
“We are currently taking significant losses from a self-induced internal threat: noncombat mishaps,” Hagee wrote in his message to aviation commanders. “Our peacetime training mistakes are significantly degrading our ability to prosecute the global war on terrorism.”
In response, Hough ordered his air wing commanders to develop a plan to hold squadrons and groups more accountable and to stem the growing tide of accidents. He suggested a series of reforms, including:
• Emphasize the basics. “I use the example of Vince Lombardi,” Hough said. “You can run, you can pass … you can do all these super-duper things, but if you don’t block and tackle, you’re going to lose every football game.” Groups and squadrons will be ordered to continually stress the basics of piloting for every training flight.
• Standardize operational procedures. No longer will wings and squadrons be able to modify or adopt their own version of standard procedures. Basic flight operations will be standardized across the Corps in a manner similar to current Air Force practice, Hough said. “From fuel checks … to how we get from one area to another.”
• More evaluations. Squadrons and groups will be evaluated when the reforms are implemented later this year and throughout each fiscal year by teams from each air group to ensure they’re adhering to standard procedures. “It’s sometimes hard for senior commanders for me to tell them … ‘you’re not paying attention, big boy.’”
• Stress operational risk management. “You have to know your people,” Hough said. Commanders must know when outside factors are affecting the performance of their pilots and enlisted maintainers. Putting someone in the air who is distracted by a messy divorce, for example, will no longer be allowed.
• Increased use of combat readiness evaluations. Teams from Training and Education Command at Quantico, Va., regularly evaluate Marine forces to make sure they are prepared for deployment. Hough is worried that these evaluations aren’t catching problems; “I’m going to put some teeth in them.”
• Commander’s course. He wants to stress the fundamentals of accountability and leadership at senior levels rather than merely the technical aspects of gaining command. “We’re going to talk about critical sensitivity that has to be understood when you start putting together flight schedules. You’ve got to get rid of the nepotism, the good-old-boy thing that this guy’s a good guy.”
Back-to-basic flight issues
Part of the commandant’s safety message sent out in late July called for a one-day safety stand-down for the entire Marine air fleet within five days of the message “to allow commanders and aircrews to focus on back to basic flight issues, SOPs, [operational risk management] checklists and safety enhancement.”
The commandant then convened a meeting with all the air wing commanders on July 29 in Washington to discuss “options for effective response.”
Wing commanders and senior aviation officials will hash out their initiatives, including Hough’s recommendations, during a meeting of the Corps’ air board to be held in San Diego in September. The commander of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, Maj. Gen. Thomas Moore Jr., will lead the accident-reduction effort and will report his findings at the air board meeting.
After losing the rough equivalent of a squadron of aircraft and 15 Marines during largely peacetime situations in less than a year, aviation leaders aim to end the crashes.
Over time, “you see the accident rate going down year by year by year,” Stalder said. “This trend that we see this year is so troubling because it looks like we’ve started to go back the other way, and we just can’t do that.
“That’s just a snap shot,” he said. “But you can’t take a chance on that — it’s too important. You have to get in front of it.”
Christian Lowe covers Marine Corps aviation issues. He can be reached at (703) 750-8613 or email@example.com.
This fiscal year’s major aviation accidents:
• Oct. 15 — F/A-18As collide over Atlantic Ocean.
• Oct. 22 — UH-1N hits ground during training in California.
• Dec. 3 — AV-8B pilot ejects in Arizona. Minor injury.
• Dec. 8 — AV-8B crashes in Arizona following engine failure in flight.
• Jan. 22 — UH-1N strikes ground during training mission in California. Four killed.
• Jan. 23 — AH-1W crashes while training in Arizona. Crew injured.
• March 10 — UC-35 strikes ground on ground-controlled approach. Four killed.
• March 30 — Two AH-1Ws collide over Iraq. Minor injuries.
• April 21 — F/A-18A fails to return to base. One killed.
• April 26 — CH-46E hard lands in brownout conditions in Afghanistan, rotor blades strike terrain.
• June 27 — F/A-18C lost at sea during night carrier operations in the Atlantic Ocean. One killed.
• June 28 — F/A-18C overturns while landing in South Carolina. One killed.
• July 21 — F/A-18A and F/A-18B collide in midair over Oregon. Two killed.
• Aug. 11 — CH-53E crashes during night combat logistics run in Iraq. Aircraft destroyed, two killed.
• Aug. 13 — CH-53D crashes in Japan during landing phase. Aircraft destroyed, three injured.
i don't know what the big deal is, 15 crashes, 15 fatalities, sounds like a perfect record.
seriously, though, it seems that the instances of midairs, etc have been increasing. maye cuz of the increasesd military use after a period of downsizing?