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Combat Aircraft Are Safer Than You Think
by James Dunnigan
January 8, 2013

A Hawaii based F-22 fighter scrapped its tail while landing after a Pearl Harbor Day (December 7) flyover. The damage caused will cost about $1.8 million to repair. Until quite recently that would have made it a Class A (killing someone or costing a million dollars or more to repair) accident. But now repair costs must be at least two million dollars for it to count as a Class A accident. The high cost of building (and repairing) the F-22, and most other new warplanes, finally raised the repair cost level for Class A accidents. That means this latest accident won’t be Class A. But another minor F-22 accident (on the ground) last June caused more than $2 million worth of damage. Another F-22 crashed last month. This pushes the F-22 accident rate to six per 100,000 hours flown.

While F-22s are having more accidents, most other U.S. Air Force aircraft are having fewer. The annual Class A mishap number for the air force hit a new low in 2006, at 19. That has continued to drift lower. Much of this is due to advances in engineering and maintenance. Aircraft are designed and built to fly more reliably, a trend that has been going on for decades. In line with that, aircraft maintenance has become more effective. Ironically, the safest aircraft is the oldest one. The B-52 has one of the lowest accident rates (less than 1.5 per 100,000 flying hours). The more recent heavy bomber, the B-1, has a rate about twice as high. Compared to the supersonic B-1 and high-tech B-2, the B-52 is a flying truck. Thus the B-52, despite its age, was the cheapest, safest, and most reliable way to deliver smart bombs.

New aircraft always have higher accident rates, which is how many hidden (from the design engineers and test pilots) flaws and technical problems are found. The F-22 is expected to eventually have an accident rate of 2-3 per 100,000 flight hours and this is part of a trend. Combat aircraft are becoming more reliable, even as they become more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time, the F-4, which served into the 1990s, had a rate of under five per 100,000 hours. Combat aircraft have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering and more sensors built into equipment makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect potential problems. Aircraft used the computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a real good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember because such changes are a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft give them more aircraft to use in combat and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.

Unmanned aircraft have, until quite recently, a much higher accident rate, which is largely the result of not having a pilot on board and the software and hardware not benefitting from decades of improvements. The RQ-1 Predator had an accident rate of about 30 per 100,000 hours three years ago. Older model UAVs had much higher rates (up to 363 for the RQ-2A). This year, the Predator accident rate is lower than the F-16s.

Since Vietnam, combat losses have become very rare, and most of those are more a result of accidents (flying too low while shooting at the enemy) than enemy action (ground fire). Smart bombs enable American combat aircraft to fly above it all (over 5,000 meters up) and still deliver smart bombs as needed. The USAF has dominated the air since World War II, and no one has yet figured out how to successfully challenge this air superiority.


 

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