Last week Bloomberg Businessweek published an article on how the lack of new helicopters and inadequate resources for maintenance of aging helicopters, in particular the Sikorski H-53E, were killing Navy helicopter pilots. The story saddened, but didn’t surprise me, since some 45 years ago, when I was a young Navy helicopter pilot, the Navy faced the same problems, except, if the Bloomberg report is correct, the problems may well be worse now than they were back then.
The H-53E entered service in 1981, and production ended by 1990, meaning that the oldest H-53Es are older than many of the pilots flying them. Because of the usefulness of helicopters depends in large part on their operation under conditions that create the most stress and strain on the airframe, including high levels of vibration, helicopters require continuing and extensive maintenance, but maintenance was slighted in all too many instances because of funding shortages created by Congressional budget caps and sequestrations. Then after several disasters in 2014, the Navy and Marines scraped up more maintenance funds in an effort to keep the H-53Es flying safely. But even with good maintenance, helicopters wear out quickly. The Navy was well aware of this and had planned to replace the H-53E initially by 2005, but had difficulty getting funding for the H-53K, so that the first H-53Ks will not be delivered until 2018, at the earliest.
Today, according to Bloomberg, Navy statistics show that there have been at least 19 non-combat disasters with the H-53E involving loss of life or damages in the multi-million dollar range, and the H-53E’s rate of major failures is three times the naval aviation average. And it’s likely that all the H-53Es cannot be replaced until 2029, at which time the “newest” H-53Es will be almost 40 years old.
This is just another example of something I see everywhere. Everyone wants the new aircraft, the new highway, the new bridge, the new building, the new stadium…and almost no one thinks of or budgets for the maintenance of these “new things” once they appear. In the case of the military aircraft, the failure of maintenance often results in spectacular crashes and pilots and crews dying… and in weeks those are forgotten, especially by the time the appropriations bills come up. But the Congress and the military aren’t the only example. Here in town, some fifteen years ago, the town built a badly needed civic theatre with function rooms that could handle very small conventions as well. The town has grown by almost 30% in that time, and theatre is booked close to year around… and, guess what, the theatre needs maintenance and replacement equipment – and the city council has never budgeted for it.
The United States has a highway and bridge infrastructure funding gap; the national parks system needs billions of dollars of repairs; and the list of maintenance and replacement projects in all areas is getting endless… and at all levels politicians can only insist on lower taxes, regardless of the costs in lives and national productivity, and each year the amount of deferred maintenance increases.
Of course, when someone is killed, then a multi-million dollar lawsuit is filed, but that money doesn’t bring back the dead or keep the next death from occurring. So, by all means, vote for lower taxes and convince yourself that you’re being fiscally responsible… and, by the way, supportive of the military pilots who fly the the H-53E and the crews and troops they carry.