Although it is too early to formulate a definite judgment regarding the cause of the crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214, there is a lot of speculation and some evidence to suggest that the source of the problem was human error. The weather was fine. There were no reports from the aircraft of mechanical problems. Much has been made of the fact that the pilot at the controls of the Boeing 777 was relatively new to the aircraft and even the senior, supervisory pilot checking him out was new to the position of trainer. Both individuals were very experienced pilots overall. It is not clear, as yet, whether the plane was landing on automatic pilot or was under manual control. But what is clear is that the individuals in the cockpit failed to detect and respond to a serious flight problem until just a few seconds before impact.
What does the crash of a commercial airliner in San Francisco have to do with sequestration? The answer is simple. Today, performance in the cockpit, be it a commercial or military aircraft, is all about training and experience. Modern airliners such as the B777 now have the computers and flight controls almost good enough to fly the plane themselves. Automated systems on military aircraft are now so sophisticated that the U.S. Navy is considering turning over to computers responsibility for landing aircraft on the decks of its aircraft carriers. Except for the relatively rare instances of mechanical failures or one-off events such as the bird strike which sent U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River, airline accidents are more and more a matter of mistakes in the cockpit.
One of the first effects of sequestration on our military has been a reduction in resources for training. The Air Force and Navy have had to stand down 33 squadrons, including some front-line fighter and bomber units. This means that the pilots, crews and maintainers are not getting the training they need to maintain proficiency. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh warned in a recent speech that it will take time and money to return these units to operational status. In fact, the cost of retraining pilots and crew can be 50 percent higher than the cost of maintaining them in a ready status. More important, he said that until they were retrained, these forces would be at greater than normal risk should they be called to action.
Fortunately, flying is a relatively safe business, even for military aircraft not sent in harm’s way. But that is precisely the point. We do plan to send them into combat. Unfortunately, it is the nature of national security crises that they can arise without much warning, which means without the time to bring units that have been grounded back up to full readiness. If pilots and crews are no longer entirely proficient, if some of their skills are a bit rusty or if they don’t mesh as well with their compatriots in the air, the risk to their safety as well as to the mission goes up. Training is one of the asymmetric advantages enjoyed by the U.S. military. Sequestration threatens to undermine this advantage. It also puts lives at risk.
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