Attrition: The Good Old Days Sucked


October 8,2008: Last April, a U.S. B-1B bomber, after landing in Qatar (the Persian Gulf), crashed into a concrete barrier while taxiing. The bomber caught fire, and was destroyed, as well as damaging two nearby C-130J transports. Total damage was $346 million. The bomber crew escaped unscathed, and no one else was injured. The aircraft had just returned from an 11 hour mission over Afghanistan. The aircraft was still carrying some 2,000 pound bombs and 20 tons of fuel.

An investigation determined that the crash was the result of two hydraulic systems failing, one after another, causing the moving B-1B to lose its brakes and steering, and hit the barriers. The emergency parking brake failed as well. The collision spilled fuel, which caught fire. Two unexploded bombs were recovered after the fire was put out.

A month earlier, another B-1B collided with two fire trucks after making an emergency landing on the Pacific island of Guam. There was no fire that time, but the damage amounted to $5.8 million. Accidents like this happen in peacetime, although the air force did not indicate if the two equipment failures could have been prevented by earlier maintenance on the aircraft.

In general, the accident rate for military aircraft has fallen sharply (about 90 percent) over the last half century, and about 80 percent in the last 30 years. Most of that's because of advances in engineering and design of aircraft, but there's also been an, at times obsessive, concern with flight safety by commanders. This is one of those things that gets little media attention because it's good news. Even many military pilots are unaware of this trend, and when hearing stories about the old days, from older pilots, get the vague impression that flying was more dangerous back then, or maybe these older guys were exaggerating a bit. They aren't.


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