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Deadly safety problems
plague military aircraft

Mechanical mistakes, faulty equipment often the cause of crashes

Series - Part 1 of 6
By Russell Carollo
Copyright 1999 Dayton Daily News

The U.S. Army knew it had a potentially deadly problem when an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter lost power and crashed into an Alabama pine forest, destroying the aircraft and injuring both pilots.


BRANDON NESSMITH VISITS the grave of the father he never knew. Specialist Thomas Nessmith and Chief Warrant Officer David E. Glamuzina were killed when their AH-1F Cobra helicopter crashed into a pineapple field in Hawaii in 1996. Brandon's mother, Tammy, was pregnant with him at the time.

A secret Army report on the Nov. 8, 1993, crash concluded that a fuel filter used on OH-58 helicopters was prone to trap air and "may cause engine malfunction."

Five months later, an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior carrying Lt. Michael A. Aguilar and Capt. Kenneth A. Sexton crashed into a Nevada hillside. Army investigators again suspected the same type of fuel filter trapped air and choked off power to the helicopter's only engine.

Both Army officers died.

"If they knew something was wrong with it, why did they let it go on?" said Ernest Aguilar, an Army veteran of two wars and the father of the pilot. "Something should have been done."

Every day thousands of men and women go into the sky believing in an unspoken promise: The military is doing all it can to keep them safe.

But an 18-month Dayton Daily News examination found that the military breaks that promise virtually every day.

The newspaper found that the military routinely allows helicopters and airplanes in the air that it knows are plagued with potentially deadly safety problems -- conditions, in some cases, allowed to persist for months, years or even decades.

The Daily News reviewed thousands of pages of accident reports and analyzed hundreds of thousands of computer records made public for the first time.

Among the findings:

  • The military's system for repairing and maintaining aircraft is itself broken. Hundreds of in-flight emergencies and accidents -- some deadly -- can be traced to parts installed improperly, engines overhauled incorrectly and other mistakes by mechanics or the people supervising them.
  • The military has concealed its true aviation safety record from the public. Since 1980, hundreds of serious accidents were omitted from the military's official accident rate, and the percentage of uncounted accidents is growing, from 1.6 percent of all accidents in 1980 to 23 percent in 1997.
  • Decisions critical to the safety of the men and woman who fly on military aircraft frequently are left to private civilian companies with millions of dollars riding on those decisions. In some cases, those companies participate in secret accident investigations even as they face multimillion-dollar lawsuits involving the same accidents.
  • Federal investigators suspect that several CH-47D Chinook helicopter accidents may be linked to gears made with a specially processed metal at two factories, one in Springfield. In August, 14 years after the first accident, problems with gear parts made with the same metal led to a worldwide grounding of Chinooks, the largest such grounding ever.
  • The military operates more than 15,000 fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft with virtually no independent oversight. If the safety of civilians depended on the same system, airlines could choose their own employees to investigate accidents, decide when to ground their own aircraft or when to replace unsafe parts, and make these decisions in secret, with little fear of being sued.

  • The military's already flawed aviation safety system recently has become further strained by massive downsizing and budget cuts, the loss of thousands of experienced pilots, global conflicts and an aging fleet of aircraft. Amid these problems, the rate of serious aviation accidents increased this year for all the services except the Navy, which was rebounding from an 82 percent increase in 1998. The Army's rate for serious accidents was the highest since Desert Storm.

    "I'm beginning to understand how the military deals with this stuff," said James Browne, whose son was killed when he flew a helicopter that Navy investigators later determined was not safe to fly. "They don't want to spend the money to fix something until they're between a rock and a hard spot.

    "They're willing to sacrifice as acceptable risk the lives of military personnel."

    The military's top safety officials said aviation has never been safer. They acknowledged the recent increase in the accident rate, but said their statistics during the past 30 years show a drastic drop in the rate of serious aviation accidents.

    "I care about these sailors and Marines," said Rear Admiral Frank M. "Skip" Dirren, Jr., commander of the safety center in Norfolk, Va., that oversees Navy and Marine Corps aviation safety. "If we find something wrong, we fix it."

    Brig. Gen. Gene Martin LaCoste, commander of the U. S. Army Safety Center at Fort Rucker, Ala., said many accidents are caused by human error, not by long-standing problems ignored by the military.

    "We see guys making more mistakes because of less experience in the cockpit," he said.

    Major Gen. Francis C. Gideon, Jr., commander of the Air Force Safety Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and the former director of operations for the Air Force Material Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, said serious aviation accidents have become so rare that they are "almost statistically irrelevant."

    -- Continued --
    on pages 2 and 3

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