A routine training flight off the coast of the Japanese island of Okinawa ended in yet another U.S. military aviation disaster on Sunday night, as a U.S. Air Force F-15 went down for unspecified reasons. The pilot was able to eject and was recovered in a search and rescue operation; he is currently listed in critical condition.
“We have been notified that the pilot is in serious condition. Our hearts and prayers go to the pilot and his family as they go through this difficult time,” read a statement from Kadena Air Base, where the F-15 flew out of.
This incident comes at the tail end of months of aircraft mishaps for the United States military, many of which have taken place over and around Japan, prompting many within the nation to call for new regulations pertaining to where and when the U.S. military should be authorized to fly. One incident late last year even saw the window fall from a Marine Corps CH-53 helicopter and into a school’s playground, injuring a child.
“A feeling of distrust is mounting among Okinawa people as these incidents vividly illustrate that the U.S. military’s measures to prevent similar accidents are not functioning,” the Okinawa prefectural assembly wrote in a statement that accompanied an unanimously supported resolution that demanded a half of U.S. military flights over schools and hospitals. This resolution came only months after the Japanese national government asked the U.S. to stop flights of the MV-22 Osprey following another crash.
On Monday morning, they renewed those calls, asking now that the U.S. suspend F-15 flights as well.
“We cannot fulfill our responsibilities to our children and their children if such a situation becomes the norm,” Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said. “I don’t think there is a country like this among developed nations.”
These problems are not relegated to the Pacific, however. Five U.S. military aircraft went down in April of this year alone, with a number of others since – including an emergency landing in the Air Force’s only supersonic, heavy payload bomber, the B-1B Lancer that led to the decision to ground the entire fleet due to issues with the aircraft’s ejection seats.
At least 17 U.S. service members have already died this year in non-combat crashes, with Monday night’s F-15 pilot on the verge of adding to that list, but thus far, U.S. Defense Officials have underplayed the idea that there is some sort of systemic issue at play. In fact, officials have gone out of their way to dispute commonly used terms like a “wave” of incidents or calling the overall situation a “crisis.”
Per Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., director of the Joint Staff within the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
I would reject ‘wave’ and ‘crisis. We’re are going to look at each one in turn. Each one is tragic. We regret each one. We will look at them carefully. I am certainly not prepared to say that it’s a ‘wave’ of mishaps or some form of ‘crisis.’”
I’d say mishaps happen in military aviation any time you’re flying complicated machines in – in situations where you’ve got less than total visibility and doing things that are difficult to do. Mishaps are inevitably going to occur. We don’t want any mishaps to occur. One mishap is too many. But I’m not prepared to say right now that this is some kind of crisis.”
Semantic arguments notwithstanding, there clearly is an issue at play. McKenzie’s comments seem to suggest that these incidents, while tragic, are not entirely uncommon. While it’s true that some incidents are bound to happen, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of crashes in recent years. In fact, a recent investigation showed that the number of manned military aircraft accidents rose by nearly 40 percent between 2013 and 2017, killing 133 before the start of 2018.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has repeatedly said that returning the U.S. military to a state of operational readiness is a priority, though thus far, it appears the endeavor has not made it much further than the deliberation table. Some have argued that the U.S. military can’t acknowledge a “crisis” in military aviation because it would embolden America’s opponents, but it’s unlikely foreign competitors are standing by waiting for the right buzzwords to come across the wire; the issue of American military aircraft falling out of the sky is already apparent.
The only real question is, what is the United States doing about it? Thus far, safety stand downs and a stiff upper lip have seemed to produce little in the way of results.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense.