A recent article in Aviation Week and Space Technology highlights a growing concern that the cannibalistic effects of sequestration and the high tempo of combat operations of the last decade have created a dangerous situation for US military pilots.
The article noted that from the end of May to the first week of June, 6 fighter planes were lost – 3 Navy and 3 Air Force – and one life, the tragic loss of Blue Angel Capt. Kuss.
Though the article said that the Navy had yet to find a correlation between the accidents, one factor screams to be heard: In the past ten years, the average flight hours for tactical pilots has dropped roughly 50%.
When I was flying, my flight hour target was a 30 hour minimum per month. With that amount of flight time I felt more than proficient. I felt competent and I had confidence that my squadron members were as well. Flying was what we did and we were good at it.
During intelligence briefings we were told that our potential adversaries were flying fighters that had the technical potential to compete with ours, but that their pilots received a laughable 10 hours per month. We chuckled at photos of North Korean MiG pilots in full flight gear walking through maneuvers in a parking lot with their arms stretched wide like children. Our comfort level with our aircraft, in the air, day and night, gave us a fairly valid sense of superiority.
It appears that things are quite different these days. A few years ago a Wall Street Journal article confirmed the anecdotal rumors we’ve been hearing from both Navy and Air Force aircrew. Flight hours across the services were down to 120 per year, with the lion’s share coming from deployed missions.
True proficiency comes from familiarization and training prior to deployments, where the mission tempo demands squeeze the flight hours into a very narrow range. But the bottom line is that our aircrew are now flying fewer hours than their threat country counterparts in China and Russia.
Further exacerbating the situation is the state of the fleets. The operational tempo of the ongoing wars against ISIS and the Taliban coupled with the blunt financial instrument of sequestration has hollowed the inventory to unprecedented levels.
A recent story in Military Times illuminated the darkly comedic depth of the situation. Marine units were found to be robbing museum aircraft for spare parts to keep the forces flying. There is ample evidence across the flying services of parts shortages, parked aircraft and planes taking to the air at far less than mission capable.
The erosion of cockpit proficiency coupled with tired jets is an unsustainably dangerous combination. Doing more with less is what we do. But at a certain point, the bottom is sure to fall out. The recent grouping of accidents is a telltale sign that aircrew must get airborne more often, and they are in need of fully mission capable jets to properly prepare for their jobs.
Top Photo: www.philippecolin.net
North Korea Pilot Video courtesy Latest News channel via YouTube