I spent a career in the US Army’s Aviation branch with many fond memories of flying helicopters all over the world. I also have tough memories of losing crewmembers, which is inevitable when spending two decades in a specialty where people are paid extra because of the danger that comes with the job. After I retired back to my home in Montana I left that community behind intent on focusing on the next phase of my life. But the veteran aviator community pulls you back in before too long and over the last six months I have been frequently called upon for advice and counsel.
The reason why is due to the recent slew of fatal accidents. Two UH-60 Blackhawk Medical Evacuation helicopters had a mid-air collision in Kentucky, one UH-60 without explanation fell out of the sky in Alabama, and most recently two AH-64 Apache helicopters crashed in Alaska. All combined America lost fourteen precious lives as a result. These are brutal reminders of what it means to train on the edge of the physical limits of aircraft and people every day. I know what it takes to train large aviation organizations and individual crewmembers, and I think it is worth looking at overall military readiness across all services and branches based on the greatest challenges to readiness in Army Aviation, and why this week’s safety stand down will not improve things.
When you are done reading this short article I ask that you join me in demanding that Congress investigate the military readiness reports provided by the Department of Defense to Congress.
1. Leadership – Army aviators and maintenance teams are some of the most gifted people I have ever served with. That kind of motivation, talent, and dedication requires and deserves the best leadership. Aviators always know when you are wasting their time. To train a mechanic or pilot it takes at least a year. Then the real learning begins as they join units at installations across the country. To then limit the time they spend focused on learning their craft and instead forcing them into a classroom and telling them they are not “woke” is a guaranteed way to destroy morale and therefore readiness. Add in a chain of command that pursues them with a needle in hand ready to significantly increase their chance of myocarditis and the result is an organization that is not being led, but one shoved under the communist bus. The quality people leave or retire as soon as they can, and who can blame them?
2. Training – Despite my serving in the Army, I have always considered the US Marine Corps to have the best recruiting videos. What sticks out in their commercials is their pursuit of excellence and the building of an elite corps of warfighters who stand ready to tackle the most difficult missions in defense of our Constitutional Republic. What you do not see are drag queens, soy boys, or marshmallow men complaining about nonexistent structural racism. The warfighter message appeals to those people who come from segments of our society that want to serve this nation and win in combat when needed. Those are the same people who mostly refuse to join today and why recruiting is once again falling short in some services. Aviators also want to be part of an elite, highly trained team, unfortunately, their coaches are failing them.
When the kind of people we want fighting our nation’s wars refuse to enlist, and those currently serving leave as quickly as possible, our nation has a national security problem. In the Army’s aviation community, it looks like this:
1. The loss of years of experience in their flight crews and in their maintenance support.
2. A rush to fill positions with new members who can no longer learn from the experienced members who have already “jumped ship.”
3. Pilots who would normally not serve as Pilot-in-Command are placed into those positions far earlier than they should be. An aviator takes at least a year to go through flight school, it takes years to master, if ever. A flight school graduate is like an apprentice, they need to study under a master for a long time – but the master has already retired, joined an airline, or left in disgust.
4. A continuing push by commanders to make all missions happen no matter the cost. This creates an operational tempo that cannot be sustained by these junior crews and maintenance personnel.
5. False readiness reporting numbers intended to make the problem disappear and commanders look good. In one case known to this author, one flight company reports fifteen out of its fifteen aircraft are flyable and fully crewed. The fact is only five can be flown. This kind of reporting flows up the chain of command to the Department of Defense (DoD) and then to Congress. Congress then has a false perspective on America’s military readiness. If one flight company is lying this badly, how many military units are doing the same thing across the DoD?
Are you concerned yet?
You should be.
Call your Congressional Representative and ask them to investigate the Unit Status Reports (USRs) produced each month.
Because of the recent accidents, the Army chose this week to have its aviation units take a knee and focus on safety. Unfortunately, a few days of not flying, flipping through slides, and conducting maintenance checks on ground vehicles will never address the root problems.
To quote a source I know:
“Army aviation is so ^$%@% up right now it’s not even right. There’s a HUGE experience gap right now, which is why we keep having class A accidents, they are trying to fix it but that won’t take effect for 6-8 years. So now all they did was have a safety stand down for everyone yesterday and tell us that it’s a really dangerous time to fly because of the experience gap and that we’re #&*$# for a few years because you can’t just make experience happen. So we’re having all these briefs from the CG [Commanding General] and CW5s [Chief Warrant Officer 5] now and someone asked if there are any conversations at higher about increasing [flight] minimums (because they barely EVER let us fly out in forscom [Forces Command – where the units are that fight the wars] so junior pilots are able to gain and maintain experience and they said no.”
This is what plagues Army aviation, and I suspect the same is true for most of the military’s forces today in some form or fashion – the inability or unwillingness to focus on the mission.
Fixing this will take years, even if we start right now.
It would also require the kind of focused leadership America currently lacks in the White House and the Pentagon.