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Amid Mishap Spike, Air Force Orders One-Day Pause for Safety Review

Airman 1st Class Edwin Ocasio observes engine start-up prior to a C-130 Hercules mission at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, Oct. 18, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)
Airman 1st Class Edwin Ocasio observes engine start-up prior to a C-130 Hercules mission at Muniz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, Oct. 18, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Dan Heaton)

The U.S. Air Force on Monday directed its active-duty wing commanders to hold a one-day pause to conduct a safety review with airmen, assessing trends and criteria that may have led to a recent bout of crashes.

At the direction of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, commanders have until May 21 to hold the review at their discretion "to identify gaps and seams that exist or are developing that may lead to future mishaps or unsafe conditions for our airmen," said Air Force Maj. Gen. John T. Rauch, chief of safety for the service and commander of the Air Force Safety Center.

The order was sent to wing commanders Monday but made public Tuesday at a briefing with reporters.

"The rationale behind that is an increase in recent 'Class A' mishaps for manned aircraft, as well as the fatality rates this [fiscal] year," Rauch said at the briefing. Class A mishaps involve fatalities, severe damage totaling $2 million or more, or a complete loss of the aircraft.

"The [accident] numbers were definitely the one piece that were increasing," he added.

As of May 2, manned aviation Class A mishaps have increased 48 percent in fiscal 2018, the Air Force said.

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Guard and Reserve units have until June 25 to conduct the review based on drill time and schedules, Rauch said.

He said the decision was made to "be proactive" on the incidents but added that it was difficult to identify trends at this point in terms of root causes.

The Air Force is looking at the issue realistically, he said, noting this will not be an end-all, be-all solution to the mishaps but rather an honest discussion about aircrew safety.

"The day in itself probably won't solve the problem," Rauch said. "It gives [the units] the chance to identify issues that they can work and elevate up to the [major command level] … and the Air Staff if necessary."

Overall, when counting manned and unmanned aviation accidents combined, the Air Force's Class A mishaps have declined eight percent per 100,000 flying hours since fiscal 2017, he said.

But in the last few months, the Air Force has lost 18 service members, including nine WC-130 aircrew in a fatal crash outside Savannah, Georgia.

Rauch said the WC-130 crash played into Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson's decision to conduct the review, but explained that the ongoing investigation into its cause remains separate.

"Whenever there is a flight incident, what we do is stand up a safety investigation board and find out what happened and why. And then we take action," Wilson told Military.com in an interview Friday.

Military.com accompanied Wilson on a trip to Hurlburt Field and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, last week.

"We have not seen heretofore a pattern among accidents that causes us to believe there is a maintenance [issue] that's part of a pattern. If we do find that, we're going to take action," she said.

Wilson said the service prioritizes aircrew safety once a pattern has been established. For example, the Air Force stood down a portion of its training fleet after a rash of unexplained physiological incidents, known as UPEs, in its T-6 Texan II trainers.

"When we had unexplained physiological incidents, we made the decision to stand down the entire Air Force training pipeline in the T-6. That was a major decision," she said.

Air Education and Training Command on Feb. 1 ordered an indefinite operational pause for all T-6 aircraft at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi; Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma; and Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, after a number of pilots experienced unexplained physiological events [UPEs] while in flight.

Wilson said the Air Force made the appropriate decision to ensure aircrew safety. The priority "is the safety of the aircrews and the safety of the country. So we take it very seriously," she said.

Rauch said commander-led forums will gather feedback from aircrew, pilots and maintenance personnel associated with flying operations and ask them to identify concerns.

Units operating overseas may not completely stand down because of ongoing missions, but will still hold discussions and tasks as commanders see fit, he said.

The upcoming review will not produce a report because airmen will use "safety channels" in their chain of command to remain anonymous if they wish for fear of reprisal, Rauch said.

He downplayed the idea that inadequate funding brought on by sequestration, older aircraft, maintenance gaps and fewer pilots in the force might have led to recent crashes.

"The issues that exist in the Air Force are well known," Rauch said. "How that's manifesting itself into a potential hazard is something that may or may not be understood."

The review comes after lawmakers laid the groundwork for separate reviews of military aviation safety following a series of deadly accidents in recent weeks.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill Monday to establish a "National Commission on Military Aviation Safety," an independent legislative body to oversee and assess the spike in accidents between 2013 and 2018.

"It is essential for our aviators and their families -- as well as for our military's ability to recruit, retain, and perform its mission -- that Congress have an authoritative, objective, apolitical look at the causes of this problem so that we can figure out what is going wrong and what actions need to be taken," he said in a statement.

Smith's action comes after Military Times published an in-depth report showing that military aviation accidents have increased over the last five years.

It reported that 133 service members across all the services have been killed in aircraft mishaps since fiscal 2013.

Rauch said the congressional actions did not prompt the service's most recent review.

"No, that has not been part of the conversation," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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