Losing someone during a training exercise, or while “just training” is always a difficult pill to swallow. It’s extremely painful to all involved, but because it happened during training versus combat seems to make the whole event sting a little more.
This Tuesday, a civilian contractor was killed and a USAF airman was injured during a live-fire training exercise near Holloman AFB, NM. In this particular event, the two were part of a ground party who were coordinating the live-fire of F-16s operating in the area, when an air-to-ground weapon of some kind impacted near them.
Unfortunately, we do not have further details as of yet.
Why Does it Happen?
There is a lot is going on in the cockpit during a typical F-16 sortie. During real weapons employment everyone’s “pucker factor” goes up a little and the severity and seriousness of the situation is immediately apparent. All fighter pilots know that a lot can go wrong when large (or small) pieces of metal come off the aircraft and are hurled rapidly through the sky toward a distant object on the ground.
That’s not to say that the above incident was the fault of the pilot. It could have been, but it could have also been just as much the fault of the ground party. The accident investigation will have to determine what actually occurred during this mishap weapons pass and place fault somewhere.
But why does it happen? The target is over there, the good guys are over there somewhere nearby, you aim your crosshairs at the big target and release…right?
It’s not that simple. Things can (and do) go wrong.
Target identification is the biggest, and most difficult thing a fighter pilot faces when practicing weapons employment. Not all our targets are big painted red circles in the desert. Quite often they are small truck-sized objects in realistic terrain and even in mock urban cities. We train like we fight, and the practice scenarios on the earth can be hyper-accurate to what it might look like in a combat situation. Finding the target with on-board sensors is now the more common way to locate and identify a target. No longer do we rely on the ol’ Mark I eyeballs and an iron sight. It’s all about sensor (and therefore computer/systems involvement) placement and refinement.
GPS can also be a problem. Sometimes the weapons don’t acquire the GPS constellation in time, and can “go stupid.” Another common mistake is the human involvement with GPS and coordinates. Have you ever typed in the wrong phone number in your phone and called the wrong person? A moment of dyslexia? Now try typing target coordinates into an F-16 computer while flying, avoiding threats, and staying in formation at the proper altitude.
It’s easy to see that a simple mis-type of one digit can make a huge difference on where the GPS guided munition will go.
The other side of that equation is the human element on the ground. It’s happened before, and will probably happen again. In the past ground parties have accidentally passed THEIR OWN coordinates to an airplane with GPS weapons, instead of target coordinates. They’re not supposed to ever do that, but it has happened.
Lastly, in a real-world situation, ground parties can in-fact be inside the blast radius of a weapon at impact. This is far less common, but possible. This is called “Danger Close,” and ALL fighter pilots know what that means.
When you have a Danger Close situation, friendly troops are extremely close to the “action” and are in fact requesting a weapon impact near them. Maybe they are “pinned down” and enemy forces are nearby. Whatever the case, this type of delivery is permitted, but when someone calculates that the weapon coming off the aircraft will be inside Danger Close parameters…the severity of the situation goes up dramatically.
This is not common during training events, but it could happen.
Lastly, I have seen my fair share of mechanical breakdowns with weapons. Guide fins fail, internal guidance systems don’t align or track, or the weapon is just released inaccurately or late by the suspension system. All of those can cause a bomb to travel miles from its intended target.
Historical losses in training have improved dramatically over the years. A 2013 study by Doctor Marlyn Pierce at Kansas State University showed that we have come a long way. She found that over the course of the period surrounding WWII, in aviation training alone, 54,000 accidents happened in the US. Those accidents resulted in over 15,000 fatalities. In 1943 we saw the peak of training losses with 2,268 fatal accidents resulting in over 5,600 fatalities and over 2,500 aircraft damaged or destroyed.
Those are some pretty rough statistics.
Subsequently, the military implemented many safety protocols and changed its organizational culture too. Obviously, today training and human losses during training have greatly improved. Today’s average “peacetime” (meaning stateside) military losses hover around 700 a year. “If you take a longer-term view, Pentagon statistics show the rate of death of military personnel in non-hostile accidents has been on a fairly steady decline since 1980. Then, there were about 77 deaths from non-combat accidents per every 100,000 personnel. By 1998, the rate had decreased to about 30.”
Interestingly, the Navy reported that nearly 60% of its stateside personnel deaths were due to traffic accidents, and 18% were due to recreational activities (boating, ATV riding, etc). Traffic deaths were even higher in the US Army reports. Actual on-the-job deaths have been quite low across all services.
We probably won’t know more about the sad events at Holloman for quite some time. It’s upsetting to know that these type of events still occur today and can probably be prevented. Hopefully today’s pilots and ground parties will be briefed on the occurrence, and what went wrong…and future mistakes such as this can be eliminated, or at least reduced.
In training, we can always learn something to apply to combat situations that make all of our military forces better.
Image courtesy of US Air Force