Tight budget restraints and years of demand have forced the military to raid out of use aircraft for much-needed supplies and fly aircraft that should be relegated to the boneyard.
More ominously, the strain on aircraft supply has meant aviators have to make do with fewer hours in the air – spurring worries that they will be unprepared should they face the unexpected, military leaders testified Wednesday.
“I worry about my young aviators that aren’t getting the number of hours that they need,” said Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, deputy commandant for aviation for the U.S. Marine Corps.
Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Readiness Wednesday, Davis said leaders of flying missions once had 1,000 or 1,500 hours under their belt. Now, he said, they’re more likely to have 500 or 600. “We’re not where we need to be,” he said. “We’re proficient, but we’re not as good as we need to be because we don’t get the hours we need to get because there’s just not enough inventory here.”
But military brass refused to link the fatal June crashes of an Air Force Thunderbird F-16 in Colorado and a Blue Angels crash in Tennessee to a lack of preparedness, saying they had not seen any correlation between budget restraints and the fatal accidents.
In fact, said West, the mishap rate is trending downward. Still, he said, “we don’t want to lose a single airman.”
The military has been hampered not only by constant demands on their forces from recent conflicts, but persistent budgetary fights and uncertainty. Davis said the Marines are “constantly” transferring aircraft to fill out deploying squadrons. And they’re constantly fixing aged aircraft in order to remain airborne.
“We are in a deep hole,” he said, “and we have a ways to go to climb out.”
In one case, he said, a depot needed hinge nose gear for an old F-18, searching abandoned aircraft for the part. Ultimately, they had to use 3D printing to replicate the needed part.
Wright-Patterson is home to the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, which operates maintenance depots and works to keep planes in the air.
Major Gen. Scott D. West, director of current operations for the U.S. Air Force said the Air Force’s fleet is older than it’s ever been before.
It’s smaller, too, than in recent years. He said the Air Force had 134 fighter squadrons at the beginning of the Gulf War. “Today, we have 55,” he said.
The Air Force has trained some of its pilots via simulators – some also based at Wright-Patterson - but West cautioned that those couldn’t replace comprehensive training.
A simulator, he said, “can train an operator or maintainer to do certain tasks very well,” he said, but “what you don’t do in a simulator is assess the entire performance of a system.”