A lack of qualified personnel contributed to a fatal crash off the Japanese coast in 2018 involving U.S. military aircraft stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a military report has said.
The report, released earlier this month, re-examined two separate accidents, in December 2018 and April 2016, over the Western Pacific both involving F/A-18 aircraft of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 242, a tactical aircraft squadron, and KC-130 tankers, with the 2018 collision claiming six lives.
“Marine Corps manning practices have unintentionally detailed well below average first-tour aviators in disparate proportions” in a most challenging flight environment and at the squadron, the report said.
Due to the unit lacking qualified personnel, both at the aircrew and maintainer level, the squadron’s commanding officer said its readiness levels were degraded, according to the report.
“Above average second/third-tour aviators are not assigned to (Iwakuni) in the same proportional quantity as (U.S.) east coast and west coast F/A-18 squadrons,” it said.
While the Iwakuni base is widely regarded as “the most challenging flight environment” in peacetime due to factors such as operations with a single runway, a lot of bad weather and lack of nearby airports for emergency landing, current assignment policies of the Marine Corps have pushed “the weakest aviators” to the station in statistically disproportionate numbers, according to the report.
Training scores for first-tour aviators deployed to Iwakuni between 2016 and 2019 were on or below average, it said.
“It has been a long and widely held belief” that many second- or third-tour assignments to Iwakuni have been sourced first by volunteers, who are not as skilled as their peer aviators who are assigned to Miramar, California, and Beaufort, North Carolina.
Overseas aviation assignments are not attractive to most, with top choices for aircrew prospective duty stations being West Coast, East Coast, and then Japan, according to the report.
On Dec. 6, 2018, a midair collision occurred between an F/A-18 assigned to the Iwakuni squadron and a KC-130J during an exercise involving airborne refueling, with both aircraft crashing into waters about 100 kilometers south of Cape Muroto in Kochi Prefecture.
There was a second F/A-18 jet but it was not damaged in the collision, the report said.
During aerial refueling, all aircraft maintained a covert lighting configuration, but after one F/A-18 completed refueling and detached, it changed its lighting configuration to overt lighting.
The overt lighting made the night vision goggles of another F/A-18, which later plunged into the ocean, “washed out” and the pilot lose sight of the tanker, according to the report.
In 2016, a different F/A-18 jet and KC-130 tanker collided in the airspace off Okinawa Prefecture during an aerial refueling. The planes landed at the U.S. Kadena Air Base, with no injuries reported.
An earlier report examining the accidents released last September revealed that some F/A-18 pilots of Iwakuni had engaged in acts of misconduct during flights, such as striking poses for selfies in the cockpit.