Military aviation mishaps and deaths are declining for the first time in years

For aviation fatalities, the Pentagon reported a sharp decline across the services in 2019. Last year, a total of 13 service members died in mishaps, compared with the previous year’s 39 ― which had marked a 10-year high.

The Marine Corps suffered the worst streak of fatalities, reporting eight Marines who died in aircraft accidents, including a late 2018 aerial refueling collision that killed six aircrew between the tanker and fighter jet involved.

Despite the broad decline in mishaps, trouble spots remain: the latest data shows that three of the four services reported a rise in the most dangerous type of crashes, the Class A mishaps ― defined as those that involve death or permanent disability, and/or more than $2.5 million in damage.

Among the Class A mishaps, the Corps reported an increase from six in fiscal year 2018 to eight in fiscal year 2019, including a late 2018 aerial refueling collision that killed six aircrew between the tanker and fighter jet involved. The Defense Department’s fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Representatives of the services safety centers, when contacted by Military Times, stressed that each service is committed to training their forces and investigating mishaps, but didn’t offer any insights on why they believed their numbers had gone up or down.

Several factors are at play when it comes to mishap rates. Aircraft maintenance errors are often cited in safety investigation reports as the cause of a mishap, as is pilot or aircrew error ― which can be caused by anything from a lack of sleep to a mistake while flying in inclement weather.

Another is flight hours, which can affect the frequency of serious incidents in both directions. While more flight hours can mean more opportunities for mishaps, reductions in flight hours come at the cost of the experience and repetition so vital to keeping pilots and crew at the top of their game, creating a dangerous mix when they do get in the air.

For example, according to the investigation into the December 2018 crash involving a Marine Corps KC-130J refueler and F/A-18 Hornet, the pilot was unqualified for the nighttime refueling exercise, with only 13 of required 60 flight hours to qualify under his belt.

But overall, flight hours did not fluctuate enough to explain the differences in mishap rates between 2018 and 2019, as the Navy and Marine Corps’ total flight hours dropped by about 3,000 for each service. In the Army, flight hours jumped by more than 30,000 in 2019, while they declined by the same number in the Air Force ― despite an increase in Class As for the Army and an overall drop in mishaps for the Air Force.

Following the 2018 reporting by Military Times about record-high mishap rates, the congressional armed services committees held hearings and demanded answers from Pentagon officials.

At the time, aviation mishaps had spiked by 40 percent in the previous five years. A record 133 service members died in aviation accidents during that period. Experts placed the blame on the budget cuts known as “sequestration” that began in 2013. Those budget cuts forced the aviation community to significantly cut back on training hours and also led to an exodus of many of the most experienced maintainers in the senior noncommissioned officer corps.

By late 2018, the House Armed Services Committee announced it would form an independent commission of eight aviation experts from military and industry backgrounds, to survey aviation units across the military and report back their findings.

Two years later, progress has been made, but preventable deaths and dozens of destroyed aircraft a year ― at tens of millions of dollars each ― still plague the services.The Air Force had 667 total major incidents in 2019, down from 716 total in 2018, a reduction of about 7 percent.