US Army faces uphill battle to fix aviation mishap crisis

US Army faces uphill battle to fix aviation mishap crisis

FORT NOVOSEL, Ala. — In the first half of fiscal 2023, more than a dozen U.S. Army aviators died in helicopter crashes, a startling number that prompted an aviation-wide standdown in April 2023.

The Army, after a thorough review, eventually lifted the standdown. But five months later, an MH-60 Black Hawk stealth helicopter belonging to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment crashed into the Mediterranean Sea during a training mission, killing five on board.

The accidents kept coming. Another two AH-64E Apache crew died during a training flight in Mississippi, while three crew members died in an LUH-72A Lakota helicopter crash during operations along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas last month.

Fiscal 2023 marked the highest death rate for Army soldiers since the U.S. withdrew from Iraq in 2011, with a total of 14 dead across 10 accidents, formally known as Class A mishaps, meaning accidents that result in the loss of life or the loss of equipment totaling more than $2.5 million.

In an average year, Army aviation mishaps typically kill six crew members, with the average Class A mishap accident rate hovering just under one accident per 100,000 flight hours. The current rate is 3.22, more than double the highest rate of any fiscal year in more than a decade, according to Army Combat Readiness Center data.

Army leaders say the service is actively addressing the issue, including unveiling training enhancement efforts, but experts said it could take years to correct the root issues in the service’s training amid an existing experience shortfall. As a result, the Army’s mishap rate could get worse before it gets better.

“Unfortunately, there’s still a shortage in the force right now,” Joe Roeland, a former aviation warrant officer and instructor pilot who retired from the Army two years ago, told Defense News. “We’ve downsized; we’ll never truly upsize.”

‘Out-driving their headlights’

In its examination of the force and training processes during the 2023 standdown, the Army found its pilots and aviation warrant officers are today significantly less experienced than they were during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Eric Schwegler, G3 director at the Army Combat Readiness Center, told Defense News that mishaps are far more common at “the lowest level, when you’ve got maybe an E-5 [the lowest rank as a noncommissioned officer] in charge.”

“[What] we see time and time again is they underestimate the risk or the risk changes,” he added.

As a result, inexperienced crews were “out-driving their headlights, out-training the experience that was in their force at whatever level,” Maj. Gen. Mac McCurry, commander of the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Novosel, Alabama, told Defense News last month.

“We had this known increase in task complexity as we shifted from tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan to more complex tasks in large-scale combat, bringing aircraft down from altitude, closer to the terrain, flying in larger formations,” McCurry said, noting those are skills necessary to survive operations against advanced adversaries.

Indeed, the deadliest helicopter crash in 2023 happened when two Black Hawks collided in a nighttime, multi-ship training exercise in Kentucky, killing nine. In that case, pilots were using night vision goggles. The following month, three crew members were killed in another multi-ship training exercise in Alaska, when two Apache helicopters collided.

While investigations are still ongoing for the majority of Class A mishaps in 2023 and 2024, according to FlightFax, an Army online newsletter covering Army aircraft accident prevention, the service determined during the standdown that the top killer is “spatial disorientation,” which happens when a pilot wrongly perceives where the aircraft is relative to the ground or surroundings.

Last year was a “very, very bad year” for spatial disorientation, according to the Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, which is working on solutions that could prevent the phenomenon.

The lab is working on several possible solutions to help pilots cope with disorientation in the cockpit, including a strap around a pilot’s torso that vibrates in a corresponding location on the body to indicate the pilot is drifting in a specific direction.

The accidents in 2023 and early 2024 all occurred in more challenging environments, where the chances of becoming spatially disoriented increased dramatically. These included flying at night using night vision goggles, flying in formation, and flying over snow and water.

While the service has brought in heads-up and helmet-mounted displays to help pilots stay oriented, the Army hasn’t seen a drastic improvement through various technological capabilities, according to the lab.

The Army also identified flight hours as another issue. Units are unable to use all of the flight hours budgeted each year by Congress because of limitations related to aircraft, fuel and crews.

Getting in flight hours is “so critical,” McCurry said, but it’s not always easy.

“When you talk about everything that has to come together for a flight mission, you have to have an aircraft that’s ready,” he explained. “You have to have fuel, you have to have the right trainers and then you have to have the crews.”

With the operational tempo in recent years, coupled with a personnel gap, “it’s been a challenge to pull it all together,” he added.

Experience deficit

Halfway into this fiscal year, the Army has had a dozen Class A accidents resulting in 10 deaths, putting it on pace to become the service’s deadliest year in recent history.

McCurry told Defense News the Army wants to increase training requirements to avoid fatal accidents. This month, it unveiled what it’s calling an aviation “standup” to bolster training.

“Over the first six months of this fiscal year, we’ve seen a troubling trend with our accident rates,” Maj. Gen. Walter Rugen, director of Army aviation, told reporters in April. The so-called standup is meant to “empower the force at the lowest level to solve these problems.”

The training is to focus on three areas identified as needing improvement and likely one of the root causes of crashes. Unit commanders plan to tackle risk management and mitigation for aviation and training operations. Operational-level training is to center on power management and spatial disorientation. And maintainers will review maintenance standards for aircraft repairs and safety checks, according to Rugen.

The Combat Readiness Center has focused on sending teams through its Safety Assistance Visit program to train units at the lower levels on risk management and how to adapt to changing hazards. Already in FY24, the center conducted 31 safety assistance visits. Last year, the organization trained 23,000 soldiers within the aviation branch at nearly 60 sites.

The key lessons are “how to operationalize risk management, and what are the common errors they are making — or don’t even know they’re making — so that they are in the right place at the right time to prevent the next mishap,” Schwegler said.

But McCurry acknowledged the training effort can’t address another issue: the inexperience of pilots.

“We’ve lost a lot of experience that was gained when we were doing the heel-to-toe rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan through natural retirement and attrition,” McCurry said. “There is a known reduction in aviation warrant officer experience.”

Roeland, who served as the aviation branch’s chief warrant officer prior to his retirement, said the service has seen significant departures among its aviation service members. It can take six to eight years for a warrant officer “to become proficient at what we do,” he noted.

The Army is now weighing how it can better take advantage of the experienced aviators still in the service.

Roeland said the service should focus on how it’s using experienced officers, rather than fast-track warrant officer promotions.

“When we fast-track people, they’re built on a shaky foundation,” he said. “How do you have these incidents and accidents with these mid-grade W-3s and 4s [warrant officers]? Well, their foundation was shaky to start with; nobody checked them on the way up.”

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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