That is an interesting article. Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Since newspaper articles have a way of disappearing after awhile I decided to go ahead and post it here.
Military regularly allows unsafe aircraft to fly
By Russell Carollo, Palm Beach Post-Cox News Service
Sunday, October 24, 1999
The U.S. military routinely allows helicopters and planes in the air that it knows are plagued with deadly safety problems -- conditions allowed to exist for months, years, even decades in some cases -- an 18-month examination by Cox Newspapers found.
The Dayton Daily News in Ohio reviewed thousands of pages of accident reports and analyzed hundreds of thousands of computer records released to the public for the first time.
Among the findings:
The military's system for repairing and maintaining aircraft is itself broken. Hundreds of in-flight emergencies and accidents -- some deadly -- can be traced to parts installed improperly, engines overhauled incorrectly and other mistakes by mechanics or the people supervising them.
The military has concealed its true aviation safety record from the public. Since 1980, hundreds of serious accidents were omitted from the military's official accident rate, and the percentage of uncounted accidents is growing, from 1.6 percent of all accidents in 1980 to 23 percent in 1997.
Florida is a dangerous place for Air Force jets. Since 1971, there have been 123 major accidents in Florida. The state is tied for first with Nevada.
Pratt & Whitney's F100 engine -- one of the most popular in Air Force history -- has caused at least 94 major Air Force accidents involving F-15 and F-16 fighters since 1976, including five during the past 10 months. The engine was designed at the company's plant in northwestern Palm Beach County.
Decisions critical to the safety of the men and women who fly on military aircraft frequently are left to private civilian companies with millions of dollars riding on those decisions. In some cases, those companies participate in secret accident investigations even as they face multimillion-dollar lawsuits involving the same accidents.
The military operates more than 15,000 fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft with virtually no independent oversight. If the safety of civilians depended on the same system, airlines could choose their own employees to investigate accidents, decide when to ground their own aircraft, when to replace unsafe parts and make these decisions in secret, with little fear of being sued.
The military's already flawed aviation safety system recently has become further strained by massive downsizing and budget cuts, the loss of thousands of experienced pilots, global conflicts and an aging fleet of aircraft. Amid these problems, the rate of serious aviation accidents increased this year for all the services except the Navy, which was rebounding from an 82 percent increase in 1998. The Army's rate for serious accidents was the highest since Desert Storm.
''I'm beginning to understand how the military deals with this stuff,'' said James Browne, whose son was killed when he flew a helicopter that Navy investigators later determined was not safe to fly. ''They don't want to spend the money to fix something until they're between a rock and a hard spot. They're willing to sacrifice as acceptable risk the lives of military personnel.''
The military's top safety officials said aviation has never been safer. They acknowledged the recent increase in the accident rate but said their statistics during the past 30 years show a drastic drop in the rate of serious aviation accidents.
''I care about these sailors and Marines,'' said Rear Adm. Frank M. ''Skip'' Dirren Jr., commander of the safety center in Norfolk, Va., that oversees Navy and Marine Corps aviation safety. ''If we find something wrong, we fix it.''
Brig. Gen. Gene Martin LaCoste, commander of the U.S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., said many accidents are caused by human error, not by long-standing problems ignored by the military. ''We see guys making more mistakes because of less experience in the cockpit.''
Major Gen. Francis C. Gideon Jr., commander of the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., said serious aviation accidents have become so rare they are ''almost statistically irrelevant.''
Accidents still rising
Despite assurances that the military is doing everything it can to prevent accidents, planes and helicopters keep falling from the sky for the same reasons:
The engine-control assembly in the Navy's F-18 Hornet had failed 114 times when a pilot in Florida reported a problem on July 1, 1996. ''Multiple ECA failures fleetwide posing unacceptable risk to aircraft crew,'' an investigator warned after that incident. Exactly one month later, another F-18 reported the same problem. Three months later, another was reported.
Hydraulic failures in the Navy and Marine Corps' CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters caused more than 71 emergencies and accidents since 1988, three resulting in a loss of helicopters -- one of them in President Clinton's fleet. This year, 11 years after the first incident was documented, two people were hurt when a helicopter filled with reporters and photographers caught fire off the California coast.
An electrical relay used in the vapor system for the Navy's twin-engine E-2C Hawkeye airplane failed at least 54 times -- 26 of the incidents causing fires or an electrical spark. In 1996, an investigator warned: ''This situation needs to be rectified. . . . We were fortunate that this incident happened on preflight.'' Two months later, an E-2C reported smoke in the cockpit after the vapor system failed. Two similar cases were reported in 1997 and at least one in 1998.
The military often chooses small, measured responses to recurring problems, but that hasn't always been a good strategy.
For years, the military struggled to prevent engine problems that plagued the Marines' AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter.
There were two types of malfunctions: rollbacks, causing the engine to roll back to idle; and flameouts, the sudden loss of engine power. They are different problems that can be linked to a single cause.
In October 1995, an AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter from Camp Pendleton, Calif., suffered the eighth engine malfunction by the same squadron in a little more than a year. Mechanics first suspected water in a wiring harness, but when they took the helicopter up, the same engine flamed out again.
The Super Cobra has two engines, so losing one is not necessarily critical. In 1995 and 1996, however, the Navy investigated reports of dual engine failures.
By March 1997, the military had documented more than 70 rollbacks and flameouts involving the Super Cobra.
Less than two months later, an AH-1W Super Cobra crashed in a field near a high school in Texas, killing both Maj. Michael J. Browne, the father of two girls and a combat veteran of Desert Storm and Somalia, and Lt. Robert B. Straw, also a husband and father.
''It doesn't take but a word or a thought for someone to cry,'' Browne's father said. ''His wife is alone taking care of the girls.''
A Naval Safety Center investigation found that the helicopter ''was not safe for flight and should have been grounded'' before it left Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. near Fort Worth, Texas. The investigation found outstanding ''urgent'' technical directives for work on the aircraft -- at least two of them aimed at preventing engine failures.
Rear Adm. Dirren, who reviewed Naval Safety Center records of the accident at the request of the Dayton Daily News, said: ''We blew it.''
Pratt engine fix too costly
Sometimes problems go unresolved because the military decides the solutions are too expensive.
By early this year, the Air Force had documented 11 in-flight failures of afterburners on Pratt & Whitney F100-220 engines, used on F-15 and F-16 fighters. The afterburner, or augmentor, fits into the exhaust section of the jet and provides extra power by shrinking the size of the exhaust while injecting and igniting additional fuel.
Pieces of sheet metal called stiffeners, each welded on in 70 places, are attached to the afterburner on the F100-220 engine to keep it from buckling under the tremendous heat and pressure produced by the engine.
The Air Force found that vibration and aging caused the welds to split until eventually the afterburner cracked.
''The nozzle and augmentor actually came off,'' said Robert May Jr., who is propulsion product manager in charge of engines for the Air Force.
An afterburner used for engines on another type of F-16 is chemically milled, or attached without welds, May said, and the Air Force could have easily solved its problem by putting chemically milled afterburners on its F100-220 engines, used on both the F-15s and F-16s.
But there was a catch.
''To retrofit this new augmentor . . . is 40 to 50 million dollars,'' May said, and that's just for the F-16 fleet.
The decision was put off. After all, none of the 11 in-flight failures had caused a major accident.
That changed this year.
On Feb. 3, an F-16 piloted by a student from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., crashed near Gila Bend, Ariz. No one was seriously injured, but the $20 million aircraft was destroyed. On March 26, another F-16 from Luke crashed on private property near an Arizona freeway. The pilot ejected and no one was injured. The aircraft was destroyed.
Both F-16s had afterburners that were attached with welds. In each case, the afterburner broke free and the engine fell apart, igniting a fire as flying debris ruptured the fuel lines.
''Our risk analysis shows we were in error before,'' said Major Gen. Gideon, the Air Force Safety Center commander.
Missions rarely canceled
Sometimes the military's needs -- its missions -- are deemed more important than the risks posed by safety hazards.
''All U.S. Air Force missions and our daily routines involve risk,'' says a copy of ''Risk Management'' guidelines for Air Force officers. ''Accept necessary risk required to successfully complete the mission or task.
''Avoiding risk altogether requires canceling or delaying the job, mission or operation, but is an option that is rarely exercised due to mission importance.''
Maj. Eric Johnson, the aviation representative at the Pentagon for the Army Safety Center, learned this firsthand.
Johnson's face and legs were burned on Feb. 23, 1993, when a UH 60A Blackhawk helicopter crashed in Germany, causing a 230-gallon external fuel tank to explode.
Johnson was on fire when he ran from the burning helicopter. Four others, including Maj. Gen. Jarrett Robertson, the deputy commander of V Corps in Germany, were killed.
Three years before the Germany crash, investigators warned Congress that putting certain types of external tanks on Blackhawks could create ''potential dangers.''
''What we found out was that because of the weight of these things, the nose (of the helicopter) came near to touching the ground,'' said Lawrence Dandridge, one of four General Accounting Office investigators. ''We also found out they were not crashworthy fuel tanks, so we told them not to use them.''
Instead of replacing the tanks, the Army decided to educate pilots better about potential problems in controlling the helicopter when the tanks are mounted.
''I guess they thought the training would help fix it,'' Johnson said.
Four years after the Germany crash, on July 8, 1997, a Blackhawk helicopter crashed into a stand of tall trees in North Carolina, rupturing both 230-gallon fuel tanks and killing all eight people aboard as the helicopter exploded into a fireball.
The Army issued a press release blaming the accident on pilot error. But accident investigators noted that the crew would have survived had it not been for the external fuel tanks rupturing and causing the fire.
Johnson said tests are under way on a safer tank, but that the Army still allows the Blackhawks to fly with the old ones.
How this series was done
This series is the result of an 18-month examination by the Dayton Daily News, a Cox newspaper in Ohio. The full series is available at www.daytondailynews.com/projects.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, the newspaper obtained computer databases from the safety centers that investigate aviation accidents for the Army, Air Force and Navy, which is also responsible for investigating Marine Corps accidents.
The databases, which have never before been released to the public, contained hundreds of thousands of records on more than 87,500 military aviation incidents that occurred since the 1970s.
The databases included information typically kept secret by the services, including the identity of parts suspected of playing roles in accidents. The newspaper used the databases to link a single part to more than one accident.
The newspaper also obtained dozens of lengthy records of aviation accident reports from military offices around the world.
More than 150 people were interviewed in 13 states. The series was written by Russell Carollo, a staff writer of the Dayton Daily News. He previously co-wrote a series on problems with the military's health-care system that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.