The decline in USN and USMC non-deployed flying rates are a cause for concern, as demonstrated by increased home station accident rates. Fixing the problem will take time.
Concern has arisen over an increase in aircraft crashes in 2016, particularly USN and USMC F/A-18C Hornets and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets. Since May, four Hornet or Super Hornet crashes involving non-deployed units killed two pilots and destroyed five aircraft. Reporting indicates that these crashes are part of a sharp increase in military aviation accidents overall for non-deployed 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 deployment overseas.
A major accident is defined as an incident that causes at least $50,000 in damage and in some cases leads to injury, death or the loss of the aircraft. Since 2012, the number of major Navy and Marine Hornet and Super Hornet accidents has increased 44 percent, according to data collected by the Naval Safety Centre in Norfolk, Va. As a result, there are calls for funding to be significantly increased in order to restore airframe availability and pilot proficiency, and support current operations, or for operational tempo to be drastically reduced.
The Navy and Marines rank the top three most damaging aviation accidents 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 (automatic federal spending cuts contained in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which started to take effect from March 2013), the number of Class A through C accidents involving Hornets or Super Hornets has increased from 57 in fiscal year 2012 to 82 as of 2 August in the current fiscal year (2016), according to data from the Naval Safety Centre.
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 29 August, compared to 10 aircraft during the same time in 2015, according to Naval Safety Centre data.
A recent set of crashes has focused attention. On 2 August, a Navy pilot safely ejected after the F/A-18C he was flying experienced an engine fire at Nevada’s Naval Air Station Fallon. A Marine pilot was killed on 28 July when the F/A-18C he was flying crashed near Twentynine Palms in California during a night-time training mission. A crash in June of another F/A-18C during a Blue Angels practice flight killed another Marine pilot. Two Super Hornet F/A-18E/F aircraft collided in May during a training mission off the coast of North Carolina. The four crew-members ejected and were rescued.
According to data from the Naval Safety Centre, the overall number of flight hours for the Marines and Navy has been relatively steady over the past few years. However, deployed operations have taken up an increasing share of those flight hours over home training operations, which means non-deployed pilots are not flying very much.
The minimum number of hours a Navy/Marine pilot needs to fly each month to stay safe is 11. The Marines reached a low point for F/A-18 Hornet flight hours last summer, when it averaged 8.8 hours per month per pilot for non-deployed squadrons. Increased funding and an emphasis to improve readiness has increased that average to 11.1 as of August 2016. The average flight hours for the Navy for the non-deployed squadrons is 12 to 14 hours a month, although there are probably some whose average is down to 9 or less.
Experience indicates that a pilot needs to fly at least three times a week to maintain readiness. Twice a week isn’t enough. A lack of flying time does add to the rise in accidents.
Increased use of aircraft has required more repairs, or aged some beyond their useful lives. In mid-2016, of the Marines’ 276 Hornets, only 87 were available for missions. Out of those, 30 were allocated to the training squadron and 40 were allocated for deployment. That left only 17 for the units to train with during the day. Of the Navy’s 259 Hornets, 55 were mission-capable (able to perform at least one and potentially all of its missions). Of the Navy’s 544 Super Hornets, 290 were mission-capable.
The Navy planned to stop buying Super Hornets in anticipation of the arrival of the F-35C. As the F-35 program faced delays and setbacks, it was unable to relieve pressure from the F/A-18. As a result, the older Hornets are reaching the end of their service life faster, and newer Super Hornets are aging more quickly than the Navy planned. To address that, the Navy is extending the aircraft to last 8,000 hours of flight time, and in some cases, 10,000 hours. The F/A-18 Hornet was originally designed for a 6,000-hour service life.
A fix won’t be quick, as the Navy and Marines deal with the limitations caused by funding cuts. It will take time to recover from the significant challenges they have faced in recent years.
Gary Waters spent 33 years in the RAAF, resigning as an air commodore and joining the Australian Public Service at the Senior Executive level. After four years in the public service, Gary became head of strategy for the Australian arm of a global defence company, retiring seven years later. He now consults on a part-time basis. He has a PhD in political science and international relations and has written extensively on defence, air power and cyber issues.