You’re not wrong if you feel like U.S. military fighter jets are suddenly dropping out of the sky. But it’s not a new problem. Air-combat training—not to mention air show-style aerobatics—is risky stuff.
In a startling coincidence on June 2, both of the military’s aerobatic teams—the Air Force’s Thunderbirds, flying red, white, and blue F-16s; and the Navy’s Blue Angels, with their cobalt-colored F/A-18s—lost an airplane to a crash. The Thunderbirds’ F-16 crashed in a field after a flyover at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where President Obama had just delivered the graduating class’s commencement address. The pilot safely ejected.
The Blue Angels’ F/A-18 slammed into the ground during a training flight over Smyrna, Tennessee. The pilot reportedly died. The Blue Angels last lost a pilot in a 2007 crash. The Thunderbirds’ last crash, which was nonfatal, was in 2003.
Far more frequent are collisions between combat jets during training for close-range dogfights.
In just the last 10 years, air-to-air collisions during training have destroyed or badly damaged no fewer than 12 Navy and Air Force fighters and killed at least two pilots.
The four aircrew of two U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornets that collided in the air May 26, 25 miles east of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, were lucky. They ejected before their damaged planes plummeted into the waves.
Fishermen aboard the trawler Tammy witnessed the collision and promptly pulled two of the Navy fliers from the sea. A Coast Guard helicopter soon fished the other two airmen out of the water. The Coast Guard sped all four aircrew to Norfolk Sentara General hospital in Virginia, where the fighters are based.
The Navy is investigating the accident, and it could be months before we learn the official cause. In any event, it’s safe to say aerial crashes are an all-but-inevitable side effect of high-intensity air-warfare training.
Even in this age of stealth technology, powerful radars, and far-flying precision-guided missiles, American fighter pilots still practice close-in dogfights—which the two jets were apparently engaged in when they struck each other May 26—turning and accelerating their jets to aim missiles and guns at opponent aircraft.
Air combat is dangerous. Training for air combat is pretty risky, too, as pilots scramble to control aircraft flying hundreds of miles per hour while managing their planes’ sensors and weapons, and also keeping track of other nearby aircraft that are flying just as fast while their own pilots juggle all the same demanding tasks.
“As pilots, we are all trained to know that attention to detail is critical,” Lt. Katrina Nietsch, a Navy pilot, wrote in a recent edition of the sailing branch’s official aviation safety magazine. “However, balancing the details with the big picture is often where situational awareness can be lost.”
This loss of situational awareness apparently led to a midair collision between two Air Force F-16 fighters flying off the coast of Maryland in August 2013. The pilots of the two fighter were practicing close-range interception—one pilot chasing behind the other—when, according to the official investigation, the pilot in the rear position misjudged his speed.
His F-16 slammed into the lead plane from behind, wrecking the lead fighter and forcing the pilot to eject. The at-fault pilot managed to land his own damaged fighter. Air Force investigators blamed the incident on the first flier’s “channelized attention” and “task misprioritization.”
It doesn’t help that pilots’ vision outside their cockpits can be...less than perfect. “The flight environment they must scan includes an entire 180-degree hemisphere—from 90 degrees out to the sides, above and below—to directly ahead,” James Lockridge, a pilot with more than 50 years of flying experience, wrote in Aviation Safety magazine several years ago. “But there are blind areas beneath the cabin floor, above its ceiling and behind the wings.”
Lockridge was describing civilian aircraft. But military aircraft suffer the same limitations—and the limitations matter all the more when those aircraft are locked in a fast-turning mock dogfight.
This problem is actually getting worse for the American combat pilots. The new F-35 stealth fighter, which is slowly replacing almost all other frontline jets in the U.S. arsenal, suffers from a particularly cramped cockpit that affords a comparatively poor view of the outside world—especially when a pilot is wearing the high-tech new helmet that the military is buying specially for F-35 pilots.
In a mock dogfight in early 2015, an F-35 test pilot discovered that he was having trouble seeing the “enemy” plane during tight turns. “The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft,” the pilot reported.
Not only does limited visibility make it harder for an F-35 pilot to see and shoot down his opponent, there’s an obvious safety risk, as well. As a pilot, you can’t prevent a collision with a plane you can’t see.
But air combat training is dangerous even when your plane’s own design isn’t actively impeding your vision. The Air Force’s F-15 boasts a large, bubble-shaped canopy that, by warplane standards, affords an excellent view of the outside world. But that didn’t prevent two F-15 pilots from colliding during a simulated dogfight over the Gulf of Mexico in February 2008.
Both aircraft crashed. One pilot died. The Air Force officially attributed the incident to “pilot error” but did cut the fliers some slack. The two pilots had suffered a “loss...of flight proficiency” that, investigators concluded, wasn’t their fault.
In November 2007, an F-15 had disintegrated in the air over Missouri owing to a badly manufactured part. The Air Force grounded all of its F-15s for several months so that it could inspect the planes for similar, flawed components. When the F-15s resumed flying in early 2008, their pilots’ skills had eroded—so much so that the two fliers tangling over the Gulf of Mexico “failed to anticipate their impending high-aspect mid-air collision,” according to the Air Force.
That loss of flying proficiency is a constant threat to military aircrew. The training process for high-end air combat is akin to a high-wire act. Military pilots spend a year or more developing the basic flying skills they need even to begin practicing the more advanced combat tactics, including tight-turning dogfights. Once they achieve aerial proficiency, they have to maintain it—by constantly practicing the advanced techniques.
Any letup in training can erode an aviator’s skills and make intensive mock combat prohibitively dangerous until the flier can regain lost proficiency, through painstaking repetition of more basic tasks. Failure to maintain dogfighting skills can cause accidents in the air.
It’s not clear that a loss of proficiency played any role in the Super Hornet collision of May 26. But lawmakers and senior Pentagon officials have been warning for years now that flattening Pentagon budgets are making safely training aviators harder. And they claim that aircraft accident rates have spiked as a result.
The rate of serious accidents for Army helicopters rose from 1.52 per 100,000 flight hours in 2014 to 1.99 in 2016, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said in March. Thornberry claimed that the crash rate for Marine Corps aircraft rose from a 10-year average of 2.15 per 100,000 flying hours to 3.96 in 2016.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps’ top officer, said his squadrons “don’t have enough airplanes to meet the training requirements for the entire force.” Out of a total inventory of 276 increasingly aged F/A-18s, in early 2016 just 17 of the planes were in good repair and available for advanced flight training.
“The combination of war fighters who aren’t trained and equipment that doesn’t work is a perfect storm,” an aide to the House committee told Defense News, a trade publication. That storm may have contributed to the recent midair collision—or maybe not.
But one thing is for sure. Air-combat practice is risky enough even when pilots are adequately trained and their planes are in working order.