House panel poised to form independent commission to study military air crashes

House panel poised to form independent commission to study military air crashes

Photo of an F-16 Crash at Luke AFB, April 24, 2018. (Photo: Air Force)

WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee is leaning toward creating an independent national commission to examine an uptick in deadly military aviation crashes.

The committee hopes to determine reasons behind the fatal occurrences and offer guidance on how to counter the flaws.

“It is essential for our aviators and their families — as well as for our military’s ability to recruit, retain, and perform its mission — that Congress have an authoritative, objective, apolitical look at the causes of this problem so that we can figure out what is going wrong and what actions need to be taken,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash) said in a statement.

Smith is offering the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to create the eight-person commission. The amendment is scheduled to be voted on during Wednesday’s committee work on the legislation.

The legislation already contains $24.2 million added to original funds sought for funding for flying hours to address the issue of military aviation accidents.

There have been seven military air crashes in the past month, resulting in the deaths of 16 service personnel. In 2018, at least 27 have died on in noncombat-related military crashes.

At least 133 service members were killed from fiscal years 2013 to 2017 in air crashes, according to a study by the Military Times. Beginning October 1, 2017 — the start of the current fiscal year — there have been a dozen accidents resulting in 35 deaths, a six-year high, the newspaper reported.

These numbers do not include crashes that have not cost a life or “rough landings” — both of which reflect problems either with pilots or equipment.

Under military parlance, these are “class A mishaps” — the most serious that end in death, permanent disability, the destruction of an aircraft or more than $2 million in damage, according to Pentagon officials. Less serious accidents are classified as class B (damage between $500,000 and $2 million and permanent or partial disability to one individual or more minor injuries to three individuals) or class C (damage between $50,000 and $500,000 including minor injuries to military personnel).

Pentagon officials said last week they will not seek a military-wide investigation into the spate of deadly air crashes, instead relying on each service branch to determine the cause of every crash and to make any appropriate recommendations.

That decision to continue the current policy came one day after nine military personnel from the Puerto Rico National Guard were killed when their aging C-130 aircraft nosedived and crashed just after takeoff from the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.

“These are different services, different individuals, and different incidents,” Pentagon spokesperson Dana White told Pentagon reporters at the time “Each of the services, ultimately they are responsible” for determining the cause of the fatal crashes. It’s not a crisis [to the Pentagon] but a crisis to the families.”

As proposed, the commission would have eight persons, four appointed by the president and one each by the chairman and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Service Committee. It would review military aviation accidents from 2013 to 2018 and report by Feb. 1, 2020.

“We need to find what causes are contributing to military aviation accidents, how current rates compare to historic averages, and what steps we can take to improve military aviation safety,” Smith said in his statement.

Many House committee members have has festering issues with what they consider is a much too slow approach by the Pentagon to dealing with aviation and pilot safety.

For example, in April, one Armed Services subcommittee acted to address physiological episodes that have been hitting military pilots in all branches during flight — known as hypoxia —by designating funds to require modifications to some aircraft as well as require more robust and frequent reporting on progress to resolving the threat.

During a February subcommittee hearing on hypoxia, one expert said investigations have failed to evaluate the system as a whole — the aircraft, the pilot and the environment — in an attempt to determine the cause of the “physiological episodes” — while insisting that events be viewed as singular rather than related.

“An unacceptable number of physiological episodes will persist if there continues to be a piecemeal approach to human (safety),” Clinton Cragg, principal engineer at NASA Engineering Safety Center, told subcommittee members then.

That piecemeal approach is similar to what the Pentagon is following now regarding the air crashes and what some House Armed Services Committee members seek to change.

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