Aviation safety a long-standing military concern
'It can be a dangerous business'
September 17, 1997
Web posted at: 11:29 p.m. EDT (0329 GMT)
ATLANTA (CNN) -- The United States has an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 military aircraft, as many as 30,000 pilots in the four branches of the armed forces and roughly $5 million invested in every one of those pilots.
What no one seems to know, however, is how many training flights will be affected by the "stand down" ordered Wednesday by Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
When CNN attempted to find out how many training flights would be affected by the 24-hour stand down each service must take, none could say for sure.
It is also unclear if anyone knows how many training flights ordinarily take place each day. A rough estimate put the number at about 7,000.
What is known is that safety has been a concern for the military since the U.S. Signal Corps purchased its first aircraft from the Wright brothers in 1909.
Pilots, above all, know that military aviation can be dangerous
"In the fighter business," said retired Maj. Gen. Perry Smith,
CNN's military analyst, "you're taking off in formation, you're doing air-to-air combat, airplanes against airplanes, you're landing in formation. You're doing a lot of things in close proximity to other airplanes."
Smith said the stand down gives the services an opportunity to take a fresh look at what they're doing.
Military aviation safety dramatically improved
"Where they can do better," he said. "What pressures are there? Things they can do with maintenance and training, procedures and so forth. All are put into a report that all the services will share among themselves. And a great idea in the Navy might be picked up and used by the Air Force, and vice versa."
Statistically speaking, a Navy pilot taking off from the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in an F-14 is 24 times more likely to have a serious or fatal accident than a commercial pilot.
Nevertheless, safety in all branches of military aviation has improved dramatically. In 1954, the Navy and the Marine Corps crashed 776 aircraft, an average of two a day. In 1996, they lost 39.
"That's largely because the airplanes are safer and better," Smith said. "Many airplanes used to have single engines; they now mostly have two engines or more. The training is better. The screening of the pilots is much better. The pilots are more mature and more disciplined."
Another way to put the safety issue in perspective is that between 1984 and 1994, there were 42 commercial airliners destroyed in crashes. During that same period, the military lost 1,523 aircraft.
The military crashes during that period killed more than 1,600 people. The number of passengers killed in the commercial crashes was almost identical.
'We train the way we fight'
The U.S. military actually has lost fewer aircraft in accidents this year -- 54 -- than in any recent year. It lost 67 last year, 69 in 1995 and 86 in 1994, according to Pentagon statistics.
The primary measure of aviation safety is the number of
major accidents for each 100,000 flight hours. That ratio was 1.50 last year, the lowest on record and down from 1.62 in 1994 and 2.10 in 1991 when the Gulf War was fought.
Army Lt. Col. Nancy Burt, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said officials estimate that this year's accidents-to-flight hours ratio was 1.40 before the latest series of crashes. Now, she says, estimates put it at 1.50, identical to last year's record low.
"We train the way we fight," she said. "It can be a dangerous business."
Correspondents Martin Savidge and Dan Ronan contributed to this report.