The collision of two Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets in November shows the consequences of pilots not getting enough flight hours to train, an investigation into the incident determined.
One of the pilots safely ejected and the other was able to land his stricken plane after the two aircraft collided while practicing basic fighter maneuvers over the Pacific Ocean off San Diego.
Both pilots lacked the experience and proficiency needed to react correctly when it became clear they were on a collision course, according to Col. William Swan, who was commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at the time.
“This mishap brings into sharp focus the difference between currency and proficiency,” Swan wrote in a letter endorsing the investigation’s findings. “Given sustained low flight hours across the F/A-18 community, our aircrew have a smaller scope of experience and significantly reduced tactical proficiency. The community will continue to operate under greater risk until both the frequency and the quality of training sorties can increase.”
“The question for us then becomes not ‘if’ we can schedule a sortie, rather ‘should’ we schedule that sortie,” Swan added.
On the Nov. 9 training mission, one of the pilots only had 3.1 hours in the last 30 days, according to the investigation, which Marine Corps Times obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The pilot had not flown the number of sorties required by the Training and Readiness Manual for the maneuvers to be practiced. But the commanding officer decided to waive the sortie requirement by assigning an instructor pilot with 15.2 flight hours in the past month as his flight lead.
As the two pilots practiced merging, the two pilots tried to maneuver their planes to avoid colliding but did not talk to each other about how they planned to get out of each other’s way, the investigation found.
“These aircrew were overcome by the rapid onset of events presented to them within the 24 seconds of visual engagement prior to impact,” Swan wrote, adding that the instructor pilot was upside down at the time, so he was unable to properly supervise the other pilot.
Swan concluded that the collision was an accident and not due to any misconduct. He also praised the pilot with few flying hours for showing “exceptional airmanship” by landing his severely damaged aircraft.
Still, Maj. Gen. Mark Wise, commander of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, determined the instructor pilot should have reacted better in the situation.
“The mishap flight lead’s lack of flight control during execution clearly demonstrates the importance of ensuring our instructor pilots have not only the requisite technical skills, but also the specific experience and training necessary to become effective instructors,” Wise wrote in his endorsement of the investigation.
The Marine Corps has not met its goal for flight hours since 2012 due to an array or problems that include lawmakers’ inability to pass a spending bill on time, budget cuts, aging aircraft and a lack of spare parts. The Navy Department’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget calls for spending $8.6 billion on flying hour operations for Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, compared with $7.5 billion this fiscal year.
The extra $1.1 billion would translate into more than 100,000 additional flying hours, Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Sarah Burns told Marine Corps Times.
But the Marine Corps remains saddled with aging planes and helicopters that are flying well beyond their planned retirement. It will be years before they will be replaced by newer aircraft, such as the F-35 and CH-53K.
As of Dec. 31, only 439 of the Marine Corps’ 1,065 fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft could fly. Since then, Defense Secretary James Mattis has advised all of the services not to discuss readiness shortfalls with the media.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman at the time, passed along Mattis’ guidance to the services’ public affairs officers in a March email, which was obtained by Marine Corps Times.
“While it can be tempting during budget season to publicly highlight readiness problems, we have to remember that our adversaries watch the news too,” Davis wrote. “Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation.”