FOLLOWING NATIONAL GUARD BLACK HAWK HELICOPTER CRASH NEAR ROCHESTER IN 2021, SCHUMER REVEALS FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND GAO REPORT ON HELICOPTER SAFETY; SENATOR PERSONALLY REQUESTED GAO REPORT AFTER ACCIDENT - NOW SCHUMER OUTLINES VITAL CHANGES NEEDED TO PROTECT BRAVE SERVICEMEMBERS & DEMANDS SWIFT ADOPTION
Following Tragic 2021 Helicopter Crash Near Rochester, Schumer Called For Immediate Investigation & Fought Alongside Families Of Three NY National Guard Servicemembers - Now Feds Have Completed First Of Its Kind Helicopter Safety Report Analyzing Rochester’s And Hundreds Of Other Crashes On How To Improve Air Safety
On The Heels Of The Tragic Kentucky Black Hawk Helicopter Crash Where 9 Servicemembers Died Earlier This Year, Senator Outlines Vital Changes Needed To Protect Brave Service Members In Army And Air National Guard
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a longtime advocate for air safety regulations, who joined in support of the families of the servicemembers lost in the 2021 National Guard helicopter crash near Rochester, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Steven Skoda, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Christian Koch and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel Prial and who and called for an immediate investigation, today revealed that the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that he requested has now been completed, and he is pushing for the Army and Air Force to immediately incorporate critical safety reforms recommended in the report. The Schumer requested report, titled “National Guard Helicopters, Additional Actions Needed to Prevent Accidents and Improve Safety,” reviewed both Army and Air National Guard helicopter accidents, including the 2021 helicopter crash in Mendon near Rochester, to determine trends, existing safety processes, and current deficiencies related to nearly 298 accidents that occurred between 2012 and 2021.
The GAO’s recommendations address the need for improved effectiveness of both the Army and the Air National Guard flight safety training programs, specifically citing reports that pilots did not fly enough on average to meet established flying hour goals due to factors including lack of aircrew availability, maintenance issues, and simulator access. Now, in the wake of the recent Black Hawk helicopter crash in Kentucky that took the lives of 9 soldiers, Schumer says the GAO report recommendations must be implemented as soon as possible. The senator today in a letter called on the Army and Air Force directly to implement these changes to ensure that our U.S. servicemembers have the proper training, resources, and capabilities to do their jobs safely.
“The Rochester Community suffered terrible loss two years ago when three brave National Guard servicemembers were lost in a helicopter crash. Now another community is reeling following the death of nine soldiers,” said Senator Schumer. “The Army and Air Force must act swiftly to implement the straight-forward and achievable safety practices outlined in the GAO report. These recommendations will save lives. And we must all work together to protect the brave service members safeguarding our country each and every day. I will keep fighting to make sure that no community has to suffer through the same preventable tragedy. I will support Army and Air Force in accessing the resources they need to implement these recommendations issues and improve helicopter safety.”
In 2021, in the wake of two helicopter crashes involving National Guard servicemembers that occurred within two weeks in New York and Idaho, Schumer called on the GAO to launch an investigation into the safety and resourcing of vertical lift programs in the conventional forces of the Army and Air National Guards. Schumer said that the increased risk associated with vertical lift aircraft and frequency of their crashes in National Guard units demands greater examination into their causes, calling for a federally conducted investigation in addition to fully supporting the Army’s own internal investigations. The just released GAO report is a direct result of those efforts.
The GAO Report found that over 90% of Army National Guard accidents were caused by human error. In the Army National Guard, there is no system to continuously evaluate pilot performance during training which likely increases human error accidents. Additionally, when incidents occur, there is not a centralized database that could help develop a pattern to determine the cause of these accidents. Nor is there is a centralized database to track implementation of recommendations following an accident report. All of these problems are also exacerbated by maintenance personnel shortages because pilots have less opportunities to fly and train when waiting for helicopters to be repaired. It is clear that if these fundamental issues are addressed, a reduction in human error crashes would likely follow.
Specifically, the report recommends:
- Improving efforts to ensure pilots receive the training hours called for in the Army and Air National Guard established flying hour goals to reduce human error accidents
- Creating a database to track incidents and implementation of post-crash recommendations
- More maintenance crew so that helicopters can be repaired faster and pilots meet their required flight hours
Additionally, today Schumer requested the Army and Air Force assess the need for additional simulators at facilities including Rochester in order to address the challenges identified in the GAO report that hinder helicopter pilot training. Schumer cited in his letter that while the New York Army National Guard investigation into the tragic Rochester, NY crash concluded a procedural error that took place during an emergency training maneuver led to the crash, the Army directed that going forward, it would restrict the procedure in question to flight simulations only. The Rochester facility does not currently have a simulator and lack of access to simulators is one finding the GAO report states contributed to pilots not meeting training hour goals.
A full copy of the report can be found linked here.
At the time, Schumer also noted the emergence of several reports assembled by aviation experts that raised concerns about the safety of military aviation, including the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety’s recently issued report on December 1, 2020. In 2019 Congress created the Commission to examine past aviation safety and readiness mishaps and it reported that since 2013, more than 6000 U.S. noncombat military aviation mishaps occurred during training or routine operations, claiming the lives of 224 service members. The senator said that these reports, cite a perfect storm of issues, including budgetary and administrative, that have resulted in lives lost, 186 aircraft destroyed, and taxpayers’ costs of approximately $11.66 billion.
Senator Schumer’s full letter to Army and Air Force appears below:
Dear Secretaries of the Army and Air Force:
I write today regarding the recent United States Government Accountability Office report (GAO-23-105219), entitled “National Guard Helicopters, Additional Actions Needed to Prevent Accidents and Improve Safety.” This report, which I requested, reviews both Army and Air National Guard helicopter accidents to determine trends, existing safety processes, and current deficiencies related to the 298 accidents that occurred between 2012 and 2021, including those that resulted in the deaths of 28 National Guard personnel. I acknowledge that the Army and Air National Guard use a variety of processes to promote safety and reduce risks during helicopter training. However, the report shows that the effectiveness of these respective flight safety training programs can be improved. I am particularly concerned by the report’s findings that while the Army and Air National Guard have established flying hour goals, pilots did not fly enough on average to meet these goals due to lack of aircrew availability, maintenance issues, and simulator access. As the report states: “For example, having too few maintenance personnel limited the number of helicopters available for training. The Army and Air Force, including their National Guard components, have taken steps to mitigate these challenges, such as conducting formal studies, but these steps have not fully addressed the identified challenges. By developing comprehensive strategies, the Army and Air Force would be better positioned to fully address the identified challenges that have hindered National Guard helicopter pilot training.”
I urge you to act expeditiously to adopt the following GAO recommendations:
- The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Director of the Army National Guard, in coordination with the Army Combat Readiness Center, establishes a system of record for tracking the status of accident investigation recommendations through implementation.
- The Secretary of the Army should ensure the Chief of Staff of the Army, in coordination with the Director of the Army National Guard, updates safety or operational guidance to establish a process to continuously evaluate and update operational risk management worksheets for Army National Guard helicopter units to reflect relevant safety information such as accident data, hazard reporting, and unit culture surveys.
- The Secretary of the Air Force, in coordination with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Director of the Air National Guard, should incorporate an evaluation of unit processes for updating risk management worksheets as a component of the Air Force’s unit inspection program or other means to ensure that the worksheets reflect relevant safety information such accident data, hazard reporting, and unit culture surveys.
- The Secretary of the Army should ensure the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s Army Aviation Center of Excellence, in coordination with the Director of the Army National Guard, develops a coordinated plan and identifies the resources necessary for conducting in-flight aviation standardization program evaluations of Army National Guard helicopter unit aircrews on a regular and recurring basis.
- The Secretary of Army should ensure the Director of the Army National Guard assesses the resource and workload allocations of safety personnel to determine whether helicopter units are appropriately staffed, or if any adjustments are needed to workloads or resource levels to implement operational flight safety programs.
- The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure the Director of the Air National Guard assesses the resource and workload allocations of safety personnel to determine whether helicopter units are appropriately staffed, or if any adjustments are needed to workloads or resource levels to implement operational flight safety programs.
- The Secretary of the Army should ensure that the Chief of Staff of the Army, in coordination with the Director of the Army National Guard, develops a comprehensive strategy that includes goals, priorities, and performance measures to address the challenges that hinder Army National Guard helicopter pilot training.
- The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure that the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, in coordination with the Director of the Air National Guard, develops a comprehensive strategy that includes goals, priorities, and performance measures to address the challenges that hinder Air National Guard helicopter pilot training.
In their report, GAO found several factors that have hindered helicopter safety processes. The report states that both the Army and Air National Guards’ risk management procedures have not been continuously evaluated, and that workload and staffing issues have hindered safety officers. Also, GAO found that the Army National Guard “has not regularly evaluated National Guard aircrew performance during training,” and that while the Army does monitor accident report recommendations, they lack “a comprehensive approach for monitoring the status of recommendations through to implementation.” Unfortunately, recent efforts have not successfully addressed these challenges, as well as those pilots face during training, such as an inability to meet flying hour goals due to a lack of feedback, maintenance issues, and staffing challenges.
While I appreciate the internal investigations and recommendations the Army and Air Force have made following these crashes, I urge you to implement these recommendations by GAO. It is critical to adopt these steps to ensure adequate measures are taken to mitigate the risks of these flights as much as possible.
I initially requested this report because, tragically, on the night of January 20th, 2021, the New York National Guard lost three servicemembers in a UH-60 crash near Mendon, New York, followed only two weeks later by another crash near Boise, Idaho. The New York Army National Guard investigation into the tragic Rochester, NY crash concluded a procedural error that took place during an emergency training maneuver led to the crash. However, going forward, the Army has restricted the procedure in question to flight simulations only. The Rochester facility does not currently have a simulator and lack of access to simulators is one finding the GAO report states contributes to pilots not meeting training hour goals. As such, I also ask that you also assess the need for additional simulators at facilities including Rochester in order to address the challenges that hinder helicopter pilot training. I am dedicated to providing the Army and the Air Force with whatever resources needed to improve helicopter safety, including purchasing more simulators and hiring more maintenance crews.
We must ensure that they have the proper training, resources, and capabilities to do their jobs safely. I thank our Army and Air Force National Guard pilots for their dedication and service. I am committed to supporting the Army and Air Force so we can provide our pilots with the resources they need to do their jobs safely. I know you share this commitment and will work quickly to make these improvements.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter, and I look forward to your response. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or my staff.