Attrition: Age Related Aerial Accidents

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June 8, 2016: In the United States the two premier military flight demonstration teams (The navy Blue Angels and air force Thunderbirds) both lost aircraft on the same day, something that had never happened before. The Blue Angels lost a pilot as well but these crashes had lots of side effects. More people see military flight demonstration teams as a waste of taxpayer funds, while others defend them as vivid showcases of military power. Though it is too soon to name the direct causes of these accidents, some likely contributing factors are obvious. One inescapable fact is that the jets flown by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds have been operated for longer than any aircraft previously used by either team.

The Thunderbirds have been flying F-16s since 1983, while the Blue Angels have operated F-18s since 1986. Of course the exact same aircraft haven't been wowing crowds since the 80s. The Thunderbirds operated early production (Block 15) F-16As from 1983 to 1991, replaced by Block 32 F-16Cs built in the late 80s. These aircraft served from 1991 to 2008, and when retired were some of the oldest F-16s in the Air Force inventory. In 2009 the Thunderbirds began flying Block 52 F-16Cs, exact vintage unclear, but relatively new airframes compared to their predecessors. Equipped with upgraded F110-PW-229 engines, these newer F-16Cs possesses about 1600 kg extra thrust, which provides a useful power margin for airshow maneuvers, as well as allowing a operations at a higher maximum gross weight.

The Blue Angels have operated various models of F-18A/B/C/D legacy Hornets since they were unveiled on the Team's 40th anniversary in 1986. These airframes have not been without problems. Parts have literally fallen off of some Blue Angels aircraft, leading to calls for replacement. The Navy must carefully manage the flight hours of its Hornet fleet, because the stress of carrier operations allows a finite amount of take offs and landings per jet. Thus, Blue Angel flying can be seen as a form of relief duty for an airframe, despite the stresses of airshow maneuvers. The Navy is hedging its bets by implementing studies to replace the Blue Angels' 80s and 90s era Legacy Hornets with modified F-18 Super Hornets, whose vintage is yet to be determined. The Thunderbirds use of relatively new Block 52 F-16Cs can be seen as a precedent for such a move.

It is unclear if either team will ever receive the F-35. The expense of these newer aircraft, in both direct and operating costs will probably keep both teams using older type aircraft for the time being. It is highly unlikely the Thunderbirds will ever fly the F-22 as the combat capable inventory for that aircraft is far too small to spare for airshow duty. Likewise, the Navy's use of Super Hornets for the Blue Angels is vulnerable to airframe shortages as well, especially if its production line is shut down in the near future. The flight demonstration teams of both services head off calls of showboating wastage of taxpayer dollars by stating that the modifications required for airshows are minimal, and allow quick conversion back to combat duty if necessary.

In addition to the hardware issues noted above, the growing budget led to the cancellation of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds events during 2013-14 and the loss of flying hours (training for and performing demonstrations) caused proficiency issues for both teams. The practice required to safely do complex aerial maneuvers wasn't something that could be duplicated in a simulator. This degradation of mental proficiency “software” for the demonstration team pilots certainly caused issues whose ripple effects can be felt today.

There have been accidents before. In the decades since their formation the Blue Angels have lost 28 pilots and the Thunderbirds 19, including 4 at once during their infamous formation diamond crash in 1983. These losses showcase the danger inherent in any dynamic environment. The Blue Angels are also noted for not operating with G-suits, unlike the Thunderbirds. Some say this borders on recklessness, the Blues counter by saying an inflated G-suit can interfere with the center stick of the F-18 during precise maneuvers.

Despite interservice rivalry, the flight demonstration teams are among the most visible and popular U.S. military combat aviation around today. Regardless of the controversy over taxpayer funded airshows, the experiences of the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds is proof that pilots suffer significant risks when operating equipment, even in an environment as benign as a peacetime airshow. --William S. Cobb

 


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