Washington — The yearly loss of tens of millions of dollars worth of US Navy aircraft and the deaths of scores of crewmen is worrying senior officers. According to Vice-Adm. M. Staser Holcomb, a former carrier pilot and now director of Navy program planning, "upward of 100" aircraft are destroyed each year in accidents. In Navy parlance, this not-insubstantial loss of men and machines is known as the "peacetime attrition rate."
The Navy is constantly trying to reduce this toll with increased use of flight simulators, exhaustive pre-planning of missions, and a rigorous emphasis on safety. In addition, it is trying to prevent skilled pilots and senior maintenance personnel from defecting to the airlines and industry with a program of pay increases and benefits.
This year, to date, 81 Navy pilots and air crewmen have died in 93 crashes. Last year 74 men died in 127 crashes. In 1978 there were 102 crashes, claiming 128 lives.
The toll is worldwide. Two of the more recent examples:
* Dec. 29, 1979: An S-3A Viking from the aircraft carrier Forrestal plunged into the Atlantic Ocean near Rota, Spain. The two crewmen were killed.
* Feb. 8, 1980: An A-6 Intruder from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station northwest of Seattle crashed 25 miles northwest of Sun Valley, Idaho. Its pilot and bombardier- navigator were killed.
While many naval officers regard peacetime accidents as "the cost of doing business," pointing out that they are on the decrease, even they can become alarmed by rash of crashes, such as those that occurred at Whidbey Island between November 1979 and February 1980.
According to a Whidbey spokesman, the air station lost nine aircraft -- A-6 Intruders and EA-6B Prowlers -- along with 14 crewmen in the four-month period. The loss of the Prowlers, considered by many experts to be the world's best electronic warfare aircraft and vital to the survival of other tactical aircraft in battle, was keenly felt: The aircraft is in acutely short supply.
"Better than 50 percent" of the Whidbey Island accidents "were due to personnel errors" Adm. Thomas Haywood, Chief of Naval Operations later told the House appropriations defense subcommittee, stressing that nothing had been found to suggest "some kind of generic problem with the A-6 community," as the family of A-l aircraft are sometimes known.
The accidents at Whidbey were varied, Admiral Haywood explained. One was caused "by running into a mountain." Others occurred when aircraft were being launched by catapult. "A major instrument panel came out during a catapult shot , backed into the pilot's lap, and pushed the stick back and stalled the airplane out," the admiral explained. In another accident, he added, a "young aviator got excited . . . thought there was something wrong [and] punched out of his airplane." On yet another occasion, the pilot of an EA-6B Prowler at Whidbey stalled his aircraft while attempting to reset an electronic jammer device under the wing. The aircraft went into a spin and crashed. The crew ejected.
In recent years the Navy has lost aircraft of every sort: F-4 Phantoms, F-14 Tomcats, E-2C Hawkeyes, and P-3 orions among them. A-6 derivatives seem to have been particularly vulnerable. According to the Navy, there were 21 accidents involving A-6 Intruders, EA-6B Prowlers, and KA-6D tankers between June 1978 and June 1980.
The Navy can ill afford to lose pilots. Not only is it 1,350 under quota, but they also are expensive to train. It costs $600,000 to put a trained pilot at the controls of an F-14.
Says John Lehman, former deputy director of the US Arms Contronls and Disarmament Agency, a shortage of fuel in the Navy, reducing flying time, was a major factor in Navy crashes last year -- along with pilot error and inadequate maintenance. The Navy concedes its pilots have flwon less since 1977 because of fuel cutbacks, and this worries many. "It's very difficult for a pilot to maintain proficiency under these conditions," says one congressional source.
Commenting on carrier aircraft accidents, naval expert Norman Polmar observes: "It's a combination of pilot error, mechanical and electrical failures in the aircraft, or electronic failure aboard the ships the aircraft are trying to locate."
Carrier flying is probably the toughest challenge naval aviators face. "You're landing an airplane on a heaving, pitching, bouncing deck under some very adverse weather conditions," explains Clarence Robinson, senior military editor of the authoritative magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology. "It is, at best, a precarious tightwire act." He points out that if a crew ejects some distance from a carrier, "Their chances of being located are extremely remote unless everything works perfectly."
Mr. Robinson doubts that fuel shortages are a factor in Navy aircraft crashes. "I would suspect," he says, "That it's probably a combination of pilot error and other things. You have to realize that the Navy has not been able to retain those middle-management, field-grade officers. They're just fed up with the way things have been going." As a result, he adds, "Very inexperienced pilots are flying some very sophisticated airplanes."
Robinson contends that the accident rae "is also probably [due to] a great lack of experience in the aircraft maintenance community, in that there are a lot of people who have been promoted to senior petty officer ranks well ahead of when one would normally expect these people to be promoted. So you've got inexperienced people maintaining airplanes and inexperienced people flying them."
This a view shared by Vice-Adm. Wesley McDonald, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for air warfare, who points out that among enlisted men there are "severe shortages" at the mid-grade level (E5-E6).
"We find that we are replacing . . . experienced, skilled mid-grade supervisors with unskilled junior personnel [E2-E4]," the admiral says. "The problem is widespread, but it is particularly severe in the highly technical avionics field."
In Admiral McDonald's opinion, the failure to retain skilled pilots and maintenance personnel is the key to the Navy's accident woes.
The Carter administration is hoping that the Nunn-Warner amendment, containing a variety of benefits for the armed forces, including an increase in special pay for pilots, will help stem the defection of key Navy personnel. A recent 11.7 pay raise for the armed forces was a morale booster, says a congressional source. But this source adds that the increase has been largely eaten up by inflation.
Although the Navy's aircraft accident rate is still too high in McDonald's view, he claimed earlier in the year it was 0.65 per 10,000 flying hours in 1979 -- a reduction of 0.03 over 1978.
"Put in strictly economic terms," he said, "This amounts to a cost avoidance of over $116 million." But the accident rate is back up to 0.67 per 10,000 flying hours today, the Navy says.
Congressional sources agree that Navy flying is getting safer, one analyst pointing out that while the Navy was losing 1.4 aircraft for every 100,000 flying hours in 1957, it lost only 0.5 per 100,000 flying hours last year.
Three British inventions -- the steam catapult, angled deck, and mirror landing system -- have, by general agreement, made carrier flying safer over the years. But there is considerable dispute about the use of flight simulators.
"Simulators are good training devices, but there's nothing in the world that prepares you for real-world flying off an aircraft carrier," says Clarence Robinson. "You have to get out and experience it."