Sunday, February 26, 2012

Military Aviation Far Safer Today: Despite helicopter collision that killed seven Marines, accident rate has plummeted since ’50s

The youngest of seven Marines killed last week when two helicopters collided was a 21-year-old lance corporal. The eldest was a 37-year-old major. The faces of these men who perished in the California desert are portraits of the ever-present dangers of military aviation, stateside or flying in combat.

Those hazards can never be eliminated. But the irony about their deaths is that the aggressive air combat training that claimed their lives is helping save many more in the war zone, along with improved safety procedures, equipment, maintenance regimens and aircraft design.

The result is that military aviation is less dangerous today than it has ever been, according to analysts, Defense Department statistics and veteran pilots. Military aviators continue to lose friends and brave close calls as they serve in the armed forces, but their profession is not the relentless widow-maker it once was.

“Airplanes crash. It’s a fact of life. But over the last 30 years, military aviation has gotten incredibly safe,” said Mark Bobbi, a senior military aircraft analyst for the consulting firm IHS Jane’s. “Military aviation, while still having risk, is far safer than it used to be, just as commercial aviation is far safer today than it’s ever been.”

Last week’s accident was the third fatal aviation crash involving Southern California Marines in the past year. Yet the rate of serious flight accidents has bottomed out in recent decades in the single digits or less for all branches of the military.

In fiscal 2011, the most serious “Class A mishap” rate per 100,000 flight hours — for accidents causing death, destruction of aircraft or at least $2 million in damage — was 0.76 for the Air Force, 0.96 for the Navy, 1.27 for the Army and 2.44 for the Marines.

By comparison, the Navy Department rate in 1952 was almost 55, according to the Naval Safety Center in Norfolk, Va.

Last year, 77 percent of accidental deaths of Marines and sailors involved activities any civilian might do, from driving their private car or motorcycle to participating in recreational activities such as skiing and snowboarding. Of the 110 killed, 67 died in off-duty motor vehicle accidents. Only nine were killed in aviation accidents.

The improvements were decades in the making, according to military aviators who served in more dangerous eras.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Bob Butcher flew the A-4 Skyhawk attack jet on combat missions in the Vietnam War. Butcher, 75, of San Diego, said the first of several good friends to die was a flight school roommate.

“That first one was probably the most traumatic,” he recalled. “I’d never known anybody that young to die. So it took a while for me to get over.”

Despite that early lesson in the hazards of the job and many tense cockpit moments of his own, including warning lights spurring hasty landings and one near midair collision during air combat training, Butcher said he never got spooked about being a military pilot.

“It’s never going to happen to you because you’re too good,” he said, explaining the mentality that kept him flying. “If any of us thought we were going to die, we would have quit. 

“You have to have somebody who is willing to push the envelope. You need somebody who in some cases could be considered a risk-taker.”

As recently as the early ’60s, before the TOPGUN Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program was established in 1969 at what was then Miramar Naval Air Station, pilots were discouraged from practicing risky combat maneuvers. The High G Barrel Roll was considered too dangerous for training, and the Pop-up delivery hadn’t been invented, to name two aerobatic maneuvers that are now routine.

Back then, pilots often died on their first few sorties in combat, trying an unfamiliar maneuver for the first time, Butcher said.

Now the thinking is that military pilots shouldn’t wait until they reach the war zone to practice extreme flying that could help them avoid enemy jets or take down targets. They train in the harshest climates, traveling as little as 10 feet away from the next helicopter, skimming the ground to avoid detection just like they might in Afghanistan.

Other changes include better safety features on modern aircraft, such as redundant flight controls and anti-collision radar devices.

“Of course, military service can be inherently dangerous. But we do so much to make it as safe as possible,” said April Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Naval Safety Center.

For example, an investigator from the center was among those combing the crash site last week to find clues that might help prevent another tragic loss of life. Lessons learned about preventable accidents and, to name a more recent program, mere close calls, are disseminated throughout the Navy.

At workshops, Marines and sailors are warned against taking unnecessary risks, a tendency that is less pervasive than it used to be, Phillips said. There is still a grain of truth to the stereotype of the cocky, hot-dogging military aviator, but for the most part the reality is much more conservative.

“A lot of these folks have families. They ultimately want to make it home,” Phillips said.

Randy Zahn, 61, of Temecula, is a commercial helicopter pilot who flew Cobra attack helicopters for the Army during the Vietnam War. His roommate and best friend crashed and died in Vietnam.

“My platoon leader wanted to keep me on the ground, to grieve. I said, ‘No, I want to get in the air. I want to fly.’ When I was up there, I didn’t have time to think about it,” he remembered.

Before he retired in 2010, Zahn lost several other good friends in military aviation incidents. About twice as many people he knows, however, have died in car accidents.

“Because of the technology they have in the new aircraft, engines don’t fail anymore. Now they are very, very reliable. In the earlier days, we were test pilots after the fact,” said Zahn, now a director for the national Combat Helicopter Pilots Association.

When military pilots go down, “because of what they do for us as a nation, we’re more focused on it,” he said. Thankfully, “it doesn’t happen that often anymore.”

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