Monday, April 26, 2010

Well that didn't take long

Only 24 hours after a tragically fatal and bitterly ironic helicopter crash, and the media is already barking up the wrong trees:

Air Force defends use of Iroquois after crash
An ageing fleet on verge of retirement
Is NZ's ageing military equipment a liability?

There aren't any factual errors in the above, but what annoys me is the focus and implication that the age of the aircraft must be a factor, with liberal use of the term 'ageing', which seems to be a favourite when running down equipment deemed to be past its useful date.

It's true the aircraft are old. It is also irrelevant to the issue at hand. The Chief of the Air Force was spot on when he said the age of the aircraft is 'immaterial'. Age is mitigated by careful maintenance, and the RNZAF UH-1's can be considered among the best maintained in the world, something evidenced by the fact the last serious incident involving one occured fifteen years ago, with only one other fatal crash in forty-four years of continous service in all kinds of places and conditions. Maintenance is not the only issue governing flight safety, but it is a vital one and there are few airforces world wide that can match that kind of safety record (that applies to all RNZAF aircraft by the way, not just the Iroquois). At its most basic level, an airframe is just that, a frame to which functional equipment is added. So while the frame may be technically forty years old, it may have had the engine or some other critical component replaced last week, as well as having all of its critical components inspected at regular intervals.

Military aircraft fleets worldwide have been steadily increasing in average age since the 70's and 80's or so, as costs and capabilities have increased. A few examples off the top of my head:
-The Australian F-18's that were at Wanaka a few weeks ago (that I posted about here). Not a one less than twenty years old.
-Some F-15's in USAF service are now between twenty-five and thirty years old, and will be a lot older when they are retired.
-Again with the Australians, they got forty-five years service from their Caribou transports, and will have gotten thirty-seven years service from their F-111 bombers when they are retired later this year (the actual airframes are forty or so).
-Finally, the legendary B-52 is planned to remain in USAF service for some time to come. They stopped building those in 1962, meaning the youngest airframe in service is now approaching forty-eight years old.

Relatively new designs being fielded now are anticipated and designed to have operational lives of thirty or forty years or more at the outset, rather than the examples above, some of which have comfortably exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of their original designers.

Aircraft do have finite useful lives, and older aircraft won't necessarily be as economic or easy to support, or as role capable as newer ones, but that doesn't make them unsafe. The Iroquois are nearing the end of their careers and are being phased out over the next few years, to be replaced by a more modern design, but the reason for replacement has more to do with increased capability and reduced ongoing costs than any other.


R said...

I really think the headlines are a way of finding any possible reason other than "pilot error" to explain the crash. Who really wants to be the first to claim that?


Off-Black said...

They shouldn't be claiming ANYTHING as regards cause, that is for the official investigation team and them alone. Jumping to an 'obvious' conclusion as you're suggesting isn't helpful to anyone. But since no professional will speculate publicly (as indeed they should not until all the evidence has been examined), the media is quite willing to step forward and inexpertly speculate for them. Crashes seldom have one simple cause, I expect this one to be no different.