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Military Aviation Safety

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Publication Date: September 2002

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL31571

Topic: Military and defense (Military policy)


Military aviation safety is a concern to policy makers in both the Department of Defense (DoD) and Congress. DoD is concerned about improving safety because aviation accidents erode DoD's war fighting capabilities in many tangible and intangible ways.

DoD aviation accidents are classified by the severity of injury or property damage. Class A accidents are the most severe events and the rate at which these accidents occur is the most frequently used yardstick for measuring aviation safety.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the military Services (including the Coast Guard) have different roles and responsibilities in military aviation safety promotion and mishap investigations. Generally speaking, the Services have the most active and involved role in promoting aviation safety. The Services conduct two types of mishap investigations, generally referred to as safety investigations and legal investigations. In the commercial and civil sector, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducts a single investigation.

The status of military aviation safety depends heavily on one's viewpoint. There is no consensus on how well the Services are doing in promoting and improving aviation safety. Some believe that the current mishap rate is acceptable. Others believe that it is unacceptable and can be improved. Others believe that DoD should strive for, and achieve, a "zero mishap rate."

Over the past 50 years, data show that the total annual number of accidents and the rate at which they occur have significantly decreased. However, this improvement appears to have stagnated over the past 10 years. Comparisons of safety between the military and the civilian world, between the U.S. military and foreign militaries, between the different military Services, and between different aircraft types may offer some perspective on the state of aviation safety in the U.S. military.

While it is easy to see the negative effects of aviation accidents, determining and mitigating accident causes are often more difficult. Many factors can contribute to a single accident. Frequently, "conventional wisdom" does not apply when identifying the leading causes of aviation mishaps. Aircraft age and increased operations tempo (OPTEMPO) are frequently claimed to cause accidents. However, the relationship between these factors and mishaps is unclear. It does appear clear, however, that human error is a leading cause of mishaps.

Those who wish to promote safety and to improve upon today's military aviation safety record may consider a variety of approaches. Focusing senior leaders in DoD on the problem may help. "Fencing off" money in DoD's budget specifically for safety is another cited approach. Tying aircraft procurement funding to a desired or acceptable Class A mishap rate may be considered, as may more aggressive fielding of numerous flight safety technologies.