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Aviation Mishap clusters

Lately, news outlets have sensationally reported the many military aircraft involved in mishaps and, to be fair, there have been several.

Last week a Puerto Rican ANG C-130 crashed in Georgia, killing all nine on board. The week before, an F-16 ran off the runway at an Arizona airfield, destroying the plane. Before that we lost Thunderbird 4, a Super Stallion and four Marine crew, and two Super Hornet aircrew in Key West, among others.

Indeed, mishap rates are up.

The U.S. Naval Safety Command reports that as of May 9th of fiscal year 2018, the Navy has experienced as many “Class A” mishaps (defined as costing $2M+ or involving loss of life) as all of FY17, with a mishap rate almost double this date last year.

The Marine Corps, by comparison, has experienced fewer mishaps and a better rate than one year ago but is still trending above a moving 10-year average. (Current FY mishap data could not be found for the U.S. Air Force.)

While it may be tempting to blame this apparent rash of mishaps on some underlying root cause, two points are worth considering:

First, flying military aircraft—or any aircraft, really—is risky. Unlike automobiles (which, to be fair, are also “risky”), a pilot cannot simply pull over and stop on the side of the road when encountering a problem.

Captain A.G. Lamplugh of the British Aviation Insurance Group put it best when he said, “Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.” Whether "carelessness, incapacity or neglect" is at play in the recent spate of mishaps remains to be seen but the Captain's point should be well taken nevertheless.

Second, statistical clusters are both common and should be expected.

We humans tend to find patterns in images and make connections between events where none exists, this latter phenomenon is known as apophenia.

I recently listened to a podcast where the show guest suggested you can wow your friends at a party by handing them a coin, two sheets of paper, and a writing utensil. After you step into another room, they are to write down on one sheet what they think the result of flipping the coin 25 times will be. Then they actually flip the coin 25 times and record the results on the second sheet. When you return, you can impress the guests by correctly identifying which list is which (this guy must have really been the life of the party).

The point is simply that the party goers will write down a pattern far closer to heads alternating with tails on nearly every flip, whereas in reality there will be larger clusters of sequential heads and sequential tails. The distinction gives away the two lists and makes you look like a genius.

I believe we are in a cluster of mishaps that are not connected by a common thread, other than that they are on our collective minds at the moment. And I imagine this information-on-demand era we live in only accentuates our apophenia.

That said, clearly these observations in no way diminish the tragedy of the lost souls, and to a much lesser degree the damaged and destroyed equipment. As a 25-year Navy pilot, I have experienced this time and again, and it is never an easy situation to rationalize or explain.

My heart goes out to the affected families and squadrons but let's not be too quick to pin the spate of crashes on a single underlying cause.

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