Attrition: Fly The Friendly Robotic Skies

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October 15, 2008:  Last year (fiscal '08 ended on 30 September), the U.S. Air Force suffered 1.37 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. These days, an accident (or, in this case, a "Class A Accident") is one which someone is killed or the damage is more than a million dollars. The average for the last five years is 1.27, and the continuation of a long term trend. Ten years ago, the rate was about 1.5. But 65 years ago, the rate was twenty times higher than it is today.

A major reason for the sharp decline since World War II has been better design and engineering of the aircraft, as well as better training and better quality trainees. There are far fewer aircraft in the air today.  Over 300,000 were built during World War II, and at its peak, there were ten times more U.S. military aircraft in service than today. Thus today, when there are more than twice as many Americans, and women are able to compete for flying jobs, pilot selection is more exacting. Seven decades of experience in that department makes sure that more capable pilots are turned into safer pilots. Still, most of the nine pilots who died last year, did so in accidents that involved pilot error. Better electronics and safety systems in aircraft prevent a lot of accidents, but there's still opportunities for pilots and aircrew to make mistakes. It's easier to make machines less likely to fail, than it is for people.

The increasing use of automation had sharply reduced the size of crews. A modern fighter-bomber, like the F-16 or F-18, can carry more bombs, farther, and do more damage, than a World War II heavy bomber. The principal bomber back then was the B-17, which weighed 29 tons, had a crew of ten, and could carry three tons of bombs to targets 1,500 kilometers away. Now compare that to a modern bomber of comparable size (or at least weight), the F-18E. With a max weight of 29 tons, an F-18E can carry up to eight tons of bombs three or four times as far as the B-17, and has a crew of only one. But this $50 million dollar aircraft is much more than five times as lethal as the B-17 (and cost five times as much). That's because of guided bombs. A B-17 carried a dozen 500 pound bombs, but it took over 300 of these unguided bombs to guarantee a hit on a target below. The smart bombs of the F-18E guarantee a hit with two bombs (actually, it's 1.something, because there are occasional system failures with smart bombs). The smart bombs also glide 40 kilometers or more, allowing the F-18E to avoid most anti-aircraft fire. On top of all that, the F-18E can operate from an aircraft carrier and refuel in the air. But for the crews, the most important thing is that the F-18E is far safer to fly, and much more likely to survive combat.

The good old days may have been a lot of things, but they were definitely a lot more dangerous for military pilots. However, the growing dependence on automation is also eliminating pilots altogether, thus the rise of the machines. UAVs that is. Our friends, the robots.

 


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