In Wake of Fatal Black Hawk Crash, Renewed Scrutiny of the Helicopter’s Safety Record

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April 14, 2023
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There have been 60 deaths in Black Hawk-related training incidents in the past decade, according to Army data reviewed by Military.com. Service officials say recent years have been some of the safest for its go-to aviation workhorse after decades of safety concerns.

Safety concerns surrounding the Black Hawk have gained renewed scrutiny following a March crash in which two Black Hawks collided midair during a nighttime training exercise, killing nine soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. There were no survivors, and the Army is still investigating the specifics behind the incident.

However, data provided by the Army and reviewed by Military.com suggests that the aircraft suffers fewer fatal accidents than other major platforms per flight hour, a reflection of the fact that, while deaths are high, the helicopter is also one of the service’s most heavily used platforms.

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“This seems to happen often, too often. But there is no common thread, no one cause,” Timothy Loranger, an attorney and senior partner with Wisner Baum who has worked multiple cases involving military aviation incidents, told Military.com.

A congressionally ordered investigation of National Guard helicopter incidents released Wednesday found systemic failures within the part-time service, including poor training management, haphazard maintenance, overconfidence, and relatively little oversight on safety precautions. The bulk of incidents reviewed for the investigation were attributed to human error, though no single issue such as sleep-deprived pilots or unfamiliarity with night vision were blamed for casualties.

Those accidents include:

  • In February of this year, two Tennessee National Guard soldiers died in a Black Hawk crash in Alabama.
  • In 2021, three New York Guardsmen were killed in a Black Hawk crash during routine training in Rochester.
  • In a 2015 incident, four Louisiana National Guardsmen and seven Marines died when their Black Hawk crashed in Florida during nighttime training.

The National Guard and respective governors heavily rely on Black Hawks for state emergencies. The Alaska National Guard effectively has round-the-clock search-and-rescue teams using the platform, and the helicopters are increasingly employed to respond to weather and other environmental emergencies, a mission that is expected to be even more frequent as the impacts of climate change get more extreme.

The Wisconsin National Guard deployed two helicopters Wednesday to help contain the wildfires tearing through some 2,800 acres of land. Rhode Island Black Hawks have also been used this week to contain wildfires that broke out on more than 150 acres in the state.

The Rochester incident is what spurred Congress to order the investigation of National Guard-specific aviation incidents, though safety concerns go back decades. In 1985, the Army ordered all of its Black Hawks grounded after six crashes and 15 deaths in a four-month period that followed 22 deaths related to Black Hawk crashes from 1981 to 1984.

Black Hawks, which debuted in 1979, account for 63% of the Army’s helicopter fleet, the internal service data shared with Military.com shows, but make up the fewest incidents related to hours flown. The data show one serious mishap, usually involving a fatality, for every 100,000 hours flown across the Army, Army Reserve and National Guard between 2012 and 2022. Black Hawks flew a cumulative 326,162 hours last year.

The AH-64 Apache accounts for 21% of the service’s helicopter inventory but roughly double the fatal incidents as the Black Hawk, with 1.93 serious incidents per 100,000 flight hours. Apaches have only a two-person crew, as opposed to Black Hawks, which can fit a dozen or more soldiers, meaning catastrophic accidents typically result in fewer deaths.

CH-47 Chinooks can fit more than 30 soldiers and account for more fatal incidents than Black Hawks, but make up only 15% of the Army’s rotary fleet. The Chinook has an average of 1.59 major incidents per 100,000 flight hours. All of the data strictly covers training incidents.

The incident at Fort Campbell marks one of the deadliest training incidents in the Army’s history and echoed a strikingly similar incident in which two Black Hawks collided in 1988, killing 17 101st Airborne soldiers. Both incidents happened at around 10 p.m. and during fair weather.

The Army has identified the soldiers killed in the recent Fort Campbell crashes as Warrant Officer 1 Jeffery Barnes, 33; Cpl. Emilie Marie Eve Bolanos, 23; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Zachary Esparza, 36; Sgt. Isaacjohn Gayo, 27; Staff Sgt. Joshua C. Gore, 25; Warrant Officer 1 Aaron Healy, 32; Staff Sgt. Taylor Mitchell, 30; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Rusten Smith, 32; and Sgt. David Solinas Jr., 23.

The most notable Black Hawk crashes were in 1993 during the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia, though those incidents were combat-related in which Somali forces shot down three UH-60 Black Hawks. The battle put the secretive Army Delta Force unit, also referred to as Combat Applications Group, into the mainstream lexicon after the landmark book and film “Black Hawk Down,” cementing the battle in special operations lore.

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Army IDs 9 Soldiers from 101st Airborne Killed in Black Hawk Crashes in Kentucky

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