Black Hawks Down – Does A Slew of Fatal Chopper Crashes Indicate a Larger Crisis With the US Military?
The recent loss of five of iconic UH-60 helicopters reveals the difficulties of maintaining an ageing aircraft at the tail end of its life expectancy, but may also be a catalyst towards using more ‘disposable’ weapons of war.
Military flight operations are inherently dangerous, whether conducted in peacetime or during actual operations. As the child of a career US Air Force aircraft maintenance officer, and later as a Naval Aerial Observer with the US Marines, I have experienced the life and death consequences of operating aircraft during war and peace.
The loss of five US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters over the course of 14 months, resulting in the deaths of 16 servicemembers, underscores this reality, and has prompted a call by a prominent member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), for a classified briefing that might shed some light on any potential problems that might exist regarding the operation of the helicopter, and what the Pentagon was doing to rectify these issues.
The aircraft loss rate which triggered Sen. Gillibrand’s concern mirrors that which was experienced by the UH-60 Black Hawk during its first six years of operational service (between 1982 and 1988, although some aircraft had been flown since the mid-1970’s), when 31 Black Hawk helicopters were involved in major accidents that killed 65 servicemembers. At that time, the Army declared that the Black Hawk “has the lowest accident rate of any Army helicopter in the first six years of its use,” while noting that helicopter safety records tended to improve with experience.
The Army’s expectations regarding trends were in keeping with a study conducted by Rand Corporation back in 1968 regarding peacetime accident/attrition rates for jet fighter aircraft. While the differences between high performance jet fighters and rotary-wing aircraft are so distinct as to nullify any direct comparison, three trends emerged from the study that are statistically relevant. First, there is a higher rate of accidents when a new system is first introduced due to the learning curve of those who interact with the aircraft, both pilots and maintenance crew. Second, if the aircraft is subjected to adequate maintenance and inspection, then its safety record should improve as aircrew proficiency accrues over time. Third, aircraft which inherited systems from a previous generation experienced higher system failure rates over time than completely new designs.
The Rand study tracks the performance record of the UH-60 during the expected lifetime of the aircraft – 25 years, with accidents due to aircrew error dropping off, and no increase in accidents due to sy
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