The Navy has failed to meet longstanding safety requirements for fighter jets, rotorcraft, cargo planes and other aircraft, potentially contributing to mishaps that killed warfighters and destroyed platforms worth nearly $300 million, a previously undisclosed internal review found.
Of the 27 types of naval aircraft eyed in the assessment -- including F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, AH-1W Super Cobras, UH-1N Venoms, MH-60S Seahawks, MV-22 Ospreys, the White House's Marine One helicopters and F-35 Joint Strike Fighters -- none had all four required safety systems, states an October 2012 Naval Audit Service report marked "for official use only," which InsideDefense.com obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The four requirements -- terrain-avoidance systems, crash-survivable recorders, airborne collision-avoidance systems and quality-assurance systems for flight operations -- arose in response to the 1996 plane crash that killed then-Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and have been mandated by Navy and Pentagon leaders for years. The first three were included in 1999 Navy policy guidance. In 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pressed the military to eliminate preventable accidents. Two years later, his office issued a memo mandating quality-assurance systems, prompting related Navy guidance. In 2006, Rumsfeld issued another memo directing officials to fund -- as a top priority -- technologies and devices that would prevent deadly accidents.
But auditors found the service did not always fully fund, implement and track the four required safety capabilities. Eleven of the 27 aircraft types -- including EA-6B jammers and SH-60B helicopters -- were missing all four mandated systems. Six aircraft types met only one requirement, eight aircraft types met two requirements and two aircraft types met three requirements, the report states.
Navy officials told auditors a number of programmatic, technological and scheduling issues hindered installation of the capabilities on specific aircraft. The service's two-star director of air warfare "places a high priority on funding operational safety capabilities and competes safety capabilities as a first priority," Navy spokesman Lt. Robert Myers told InsideDefense.com. "The Navy has many first priorities however, and in a time of austere financial resources, classification as a first priority is not a guarantee a capability will be funded in the final budget." The Navy has been improving its internal guidance on how it considers fleet requirements in the budget process, he said, as well as upgrading its quarterly safety matrix.
But beyond merely stating required safety equipment is important, auditors determined that five specific mishaps that killed 13 people, injured 11, destroyed seven aircraft and caused nearly $300 million in damage between fiscal years 2007 to 2011 might have been prevented had the department installed airborne collision-avoidance systems on Super Hornets, Super Cobras and Venoms and terrain-avoidance systems on Seahawks.
The five mishaps included four mid-air collisions: one involving AH-1W and UH-1N helicopters that killed four people and injured two; another involving an AH-1W and a Coast Guard aircraft that killed nine people; and two involving Super Hornets. The other potentially preventable mishap was an MH-60S collision with a mountain that injured nine people. Today, over a year after the report was issued internally, Navy pilots flying those aircraft still lack the safety systems that might have prevented the mishaps.
Navy spokesman James O'Donnell confirmed AH-1W and UH-1N helicopters are not equipped with airborne collision-avoidance systems. The plans and schedule to add such a capability are "determined by the Marine Corps requirements prioritization and the availability of funding," he said. Super Hornets also lack airborne collision-avoidance systems, said Navy spokeswoman Marcia Hart. Naval Air Systems Command "continually works with the fleet and the resource sponsors to prioritize, develop, integrate, test and field improvements," she said. At press time, the command had not confirmed whether terrain-avoidance technology had been added to the MH-60S.
Auditors also concluded 20 other hazard incidents involving an array of different kinds of naval aircraft might have been prevented had the Navy funded the installation of airborne collision-avoidance systems. These included nine hazard reports for T-45Cs, three for TH-57s, two for T-34Cs, two for P-3Cs, one for an MH-60S and three for MV-22s.
Many other reported mishaps and hazards might have also been due at least in part to the failure to heed the four safety requirements, auditors found, but they put these aside because the reports did not specifically mention one of the four requirements and they wanted to avoid a subjective assessment.
The lack of an MV-22 collision-avoidance system is an example of the Navy's failure to fund requirements, the report states. The safety system program for the MV-22 has acknowledged and identified mid-air collisions as a safety concern with a serious hazard risk. "Fleet hazard reports have documented at least 10 near-mid-air collisions thus far involving MV-22s," auditors write. Further, the MV-22's operational advisory group ranked the need for a mid-air collision avoidance system as the number-two priority each year for FY-09 to FY-11, the report states. (Auditors did not review more recent records.) A program objective memorandum "issue sheet" was submitted as far back as FY-05 in an unsuccessful attempt to secure funding for the effort in the department's long-term budget, the report adds.
O'Donnell said Air Force CV-22s have a Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) and the Marine Corps is working toward acquiring a similar capability for its MV-22s. He said a contract was awarded to Bell Helicopter and Boeing on Dec. 19 to install the CV-22 TCAS system on two MV-22 test aircraft. The test aircraft installations are planned for early 2015, followed by a test squadron evaluation of the system on those two aircraft.
"It is anticipated that all V-22s will be equipped with a TCAS capability, but the schedule to do so is determined by the Marine Corps requirements prioritization and the availability of funding," O'Donnell said. Asked why the Marine Corps needs to conduct testing instead of simply installing the Air Force system, he said that although the Marine Corps and Air Force Ospreys share the same propulsion system and 90 percent common airframe, the primary differences between the two variants exist in the avionic systems including the systems to which TCAS would connect. "Those engineering interfaces need to be designed and tested before installation in MV-22 fleet aircraft," O'Donnell said.
"The Navy continues to prioritize funding to the platforms with the greatest need based on deliberate risk analysis and review of historical trends," Myers said. "For example, the Navy used empirical data and trend analysis to identify the F-5 and H-1 as potential high risk candidate platforms that required timely material solutions."
The F-5 platform was a candidate for an Automated Terrain Avoidance Warning System (ATAWS), Myers said, noting a commercial-off-the-shelf solution, developed and validated by DOD safety officials, "resulted in a timely engineering change proposal that will provide a terrain avoidance and controlled flight into terrain prevention capability."
Myers said an Advanced Data Transfer System (ADTS) was required by H-1 helicopters to provide sufficient loading and storage capacity to support a Terrain Avoidance Warning System. "Incorporating digital terrain elevation data into the H-1 facilitates predicative collision avoidance capability and enhances protection against rising terrain scenarios," he said. "The acquisition approach leveraged multiple platform requirements and efforts to deliver a common solution for this data loading and storage capability."
An example of where the Navy decided not to incorporate a new system was on the F/A-18, he said. "The Navy evaluated ATAWS for incorporation on the Hornet, but determined that the existing terrain avoidance warning system capability provided the protection required and assessed the [Controlled Flight Into Terrain] risk to be low as there have been no related mishaps in the Hornet," he said. -- Christopher J. Castelli