The U.S. Navy’s plan to improve safety in aviation will emphasize
the need to reduce “human error,” said Rear Adm. Frank
M. “Skip” Dirren Jr.
If human errors that result in mishaps were lowered by 50 percent
during the next five years, the Navy would save 250 lives and $1
billion, said Dirren, who is commander of the Navy Safety Center.
He spoke during the Tailhook Association’s annual convention,
in Reno, Nev.
Human errors are those committed by air crews, supervisors and
by maintenance and facilities personnel.
In the 1995-1999 period, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were involved
in 155 so-called class A mishaps. Those are mishaps that involve
loss of life or at least $1 million in damage. Of those 155 accidents,
85 percent involved human error.
Even though the accident rate so far in 2000 is on an upswing,
compared to 1999, the Navy, over the long term, is experiencing
fewer mishaps, Dirren said. The service lost 22 planes in 1999.
But 50 years ago, the Navy was having 54 mishaps per 100,000 flight
hours. That number went down to 1.9 (for Navy and Marine Corps combined)
“It’s easy for us to say ‘there’s a problem
with the air crew,’” said Dirren. But that is not the
case, he stressed. “These are first rate aviators. ... They
have to do things that older aviators never had to do or didn’t
have the capability to do.”
The 1995-99 period was by far the “best years” for
naval aviation safety, said Dirren. Nonetheless, those 155 mishaps
over five years cost the United States $4 billion and 1,000 deaths.
For the 1995-99 period, Navy and Marine Corps aviators had 506
flight mishaps, including class A and less serious ones. From that
total, 366, or 72 percent, were caused by human error, according
to charts published by the Navy Safety Center.
For all U.S. military services combined, 80 percent of flight mishaps
are caused by human error.
For the Navy, one third of those human errors involve rule violations,
said Dirren. That problem is more acute in the rotary-wing fleet,
he said. “We have to do much better at explaining the rules.”
Dirren believes the Navy could reduce human errors up to 50 percent
by 2006. That would save 250 lives and $1 billion.
“The biggest issue today is how to reduce human error,”
Dirren said. In the F-14 Tomcat fleet, for example, three out of
four mishaps in the last five years were related to pilot or supervisor
mistakes. For the EA/6B Prowler electronic warfare fleet, about
two-thirds of mishaps are caused by crew error. The same percentage
applies to the S-3 Viking anti-submarine warfare community.
The AV-8B Harrier—a single-engine attack jet that can take
off vertically and hover—has a mishap rate of 12 per 100,000
flight hours, among the highest in the U.S. military aviation community.
But only one-third of Harrier mishaps are caused by human error,
Dirren said. “Two-thirds [of the mishaps] are related to the
aircraft failures.” He believes that the Harrier engines are
severely stressed by the hovering function. “It’s important
for us to do everything we can to reduce the mishap rate in the
AV-8B,” he said, because its replacement, the Joint Strike
Fighter (JSF) also will be a hovering jet with a single engine.
The JSF program is developing a conventional take-off version for
the Air Force, a carrier-capable variant for the Navy and a vertical
take-off and landing (VTOL) configuration for the Marine Corps and
the U.K. Royal Navy. The VTOL JSF was designed to replace the Harrier
in about 10 to 15 years.
In the JSF, Dirren said, “We’ll have the same issues
as the AV-8B.” Earlier this summer, more than one hundred
of the Marine Corps’ 140 Harriers were grounded after a crash
in Yuma, Ariz., which was caused by engine problems. Some of those
Harriers have been returned to service since the accident.
Dirren believes that, in order to prevent the JSF from experiencing
the problems witnessed in the Harrier, it should be spared unnecessary
weight. “If we are going to buy JSF with a single engine,
then we should not start adding things, because you are going to
start flying that engine apart. I think that is what happened to
The carrier-based JSF presents another challenge, which is a return
to single-engine warplanes. Today’s F-14 and the F/A-18 have
two engines, and many of the pilots who will be flying JSF will
have flown mostly two-engine planes.
The Navy decided to buy a single-engine JSF for budgetary reasons,
and because it believes the new JSF engines are more sophisticated
and safer than previous ones, said Dirren. “My personal opinion
is that two-engine airplanes—like twin-piloted or twin-crew
airplanes—do better, based on statistics.” Two brains,
two sets of eyes, two engines have better odds than a single one,
The JSF engines “are better than they used to be,”
Dirren said. He is worried, however, that, over time, more weapons
and systems will be added to the airplane, which will stress the
engine. “So you start closing in the margin. ... Adding weight
“If we are going to buy JSF with a single engine, we have
to be smart about how we manage the mission, the weight, the accoutrements
that go on that airplane.”
Chip “Big Bird” McNees, former F-14 pilot and currently
JSF program manager at the Boeing Company, said the Navy should
not underestimate the transition from twin- to single-engine airplanes.
“When it comes to flying single-engine airplanes, there are
considerations, I won’t fool you,” he told aviators
at Tailhook. “You fly the airplane differently, when it comes
to in-flight emergencies.”
A junior officer at the conference asked McNees what he would recommend
doing in case of engine failure with the JSF. “Should you
try to ‘dead stick’ it?” asked the junior aviator.
“I wouldn’t be that brave,” said McNees. “I’d
give it back to the taxpayers, and go and get me another one.”
‘Dead sticking’ an airplane, in aviator-speak, means
gliding the plane into a landing position. Military aviators agree
that such a maneuver only would work with light airplanes, not with
Cost of Losses
In 1954, said Dirren, the Navy lost 776 airplanes, an average of
two a day. But even though fewer planes are lost in accidents today,
the cost of naval aircraft has gone up so much that the financial
implications of mishaps are more significant than ever, he explained.
“We lost 22 in 1999. But those 22 airplanes were worth 10
times what the 776 airplanes were worth in 1954,” he said.
The A4 Skyhawks were $240,000 a copy. Today’s premier naval
fighter-bomber, the F/A-18E/F, costs $57 million.
Back in those days, said Dirren, such high rates of mishaps were
acceptable and viewed as “the cost of doing business.”
The decline in the number of accidents is attributed to better
designed airplanes, improved avionics and more proficient pilots,
who undergo more hours of flight training, said Dirren. Other factors
that improved safety in naval aviation were the introduction of
angled decks on carriers and the advent of the so-called NATOPS
program. NATOPS stands for Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures
Standardization program, which sets rules and regulations governing
safe and correct operation of naval aircraft. Aviators, in jest,
say NATOPS means “Not Applicable To Our Present Situation.”
The mishap rate through August 16, 2000, was 1.99, with 26 mishaps
(18 for the Navy and eight for the Marine Corps). At this pace,
fiscal year 2000 would end with a higher rate than the 1995-99 rate
of 1.97 (155 mishaps). The Navy’s mishap rate for that four-year
period was 1.58 and the Marine Corps’ was 3.2.
Dirren explained that safety concerns differ between legacy and
modern aircraft. The popular F8 Crusader, which served during the
1960s and 1970s in the Vietnam War, was an unsafe plane by today’s
standards. “Many argue that the F8 was the best fighter ever,”
said Dirren. But the F8’s mishap rate was 14.3 per 100,000
flight hours. The F/A-18 E/F’s mishap rate is 3 per 100,000
The mindset that losing airplanes and pilots is “just the
cost of doing business” is not acceptable any more, Dirren
said. “One death a year is not OK,” said Dirren. “That
is how we fly today.”
Marine Corps aviators experience a higher mishap rate that their
Navy counterparts, said Dirren. “Part of it is the culture.
They fly tough missions, having to protect Marines on the ground.”
They also have more accidents because they fly the AV-8, said Dirren.
Even though the F/A-18 has the lowest mishap rate in naval aviation,
it has been involved in accidents where pilots literally flew into
the ground. This is called “controlled flight into terrain,”
said Dirren, and it’s the “leading killer of the F/A-18.”
The Navy has installed ground proximity warning devices to try to
prevent these accidents. “It’s not great but it’s
a start,” he said.
One way to improve the safety record for the F/A-18 fleet would
be to cut back on the pilot’s workload, said Dirren. “He
has an enormous amount of things to do. We have to get [the air
crews] some help.”
Additionally, he said, “We have to change the way we buy
airplanes” so safety is not short-changed. “It used
to be that when an airplane was bought and safety devices were added,
during budget drills, the safety systems were cut and we wouldn’t
find out until much later.” That doesn’t happen any
more, said Dirren. Any safety-related budget cuts have to be approved
by a three-star and two-star officer review panel, who agree that,
if any cuts are made, they are accepting the risk that would result
from not buying that equipment. “That policy has been in place
for nine months, and there hasn’t been a signed one yet,”
said Dirren. “We think that is a healthy way to do business.”
Since Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, said Dirren, both the Air
Force and the Navy have adopted some of the safety policies implemented
by the U.S. Army, which cut its aviation mishap rate by 400 percent
since the Gulf War. The Army’s “operational risk management,”
Dirren said, has been incorporated into Navy/Marine Corps aviation.
“The other services stole the Army’s program.”
Operational risk management, he explained, “is about leadership.”
It teaches air crews how to balance the need to accomplish a mission
against the risk involved, and helps them decide how far to go.
Dirren refuted suggestions that cutting back on training flight
hours would be one way to curtail mishaps. “That is idiotic.
... That is not how it works.” Keeping an adequate number
of flight hours is important not only because they are needed to
train aviators, but also because fewer flight hours means more disgruntled
pilots who may choose to leave the Navy if they don’t get
enough flying time.
“Retention is not just about money. But about flying enough
hours,” said Dirren. “It’s about bringing the
fun back to naval aviation.”
The most frequent cause of death in the Navy today is not aviation
mishaps, but automobile accidents, said Dirren. “Where we
hurt people is not in aviation, but on the highway.” Naval
officers who die on active duty are more likely to die in an aviation
accident. But that is not the case for enlisted sailors and Marines,
for whom the most prevalent causes of death are automobile accidents
and suicide. Suicide is the second highest cause of death among
all enlisted personnel in the U.S. armed services.