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F-22 Losses

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Just a couple thoughts on the 60 Minutes F-22 expose. I listened in on a conference call by Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Adam Kinzinger yesterday, and they seem to be taking this pretty seriously, and more importantly pushing the Air Force to take it seriously. Other pilots have come forward, and the F-22 is now under geographic restriction.

Having read a biography of John Boyd earlier this year, I’m struck by the degree to which tolerance for accidents has declined. Here’s some incomplete data on USAF accident loss rates (rate is per 100000 flight hours):

F-100: 16.25/ 889 aircraft lost
F-102: 13.69 / 259 aircraft lost
F-104: 30.63 / 170 aircraft lost
F-106: 9.47 / 120 aircraft lost
A-7: 3.19 / 107 aircraft lost
F-5: 8.82 / 40 aircraft lost
F-15: 2.42 / 112 aircraft lost
F-16: 3.82 / 305 aircraft lost
F-22: ~1.5 / 2 aircraft lost (this assumes we’re around 150000 flight hours right now, which is a projection from previous usage rates because I can’t find the exact datum)

Moreover, the relationship between aircraft age and loss rate is idiosyncratic. Older aircraft tend to crash because of long-term stress on materials, but newer aircraft tend to crash because of problems that haven’t been discovered, and maintenance regimes that haven’t been optimized. The F-15 and F-16 appear to have been edging slightly upwards, but the F-100 (for example) was substantially safer to fly in later years than in early. There’s a bell curve; newer aircraft tend to crash a lot, then there’s a long period where accidents decline, then they tend to increase again near the end of the service life. However, different aircraft have different service careers (some are pressed into service in large numbers early, some are retired halfway through their projected lives, etc.), and because they undergo different maintenance regimes (Canadian F-104s crashed at a much higher rate than any other country, for some reason), the overall numbers can be difficult to interpret.

However, by the standards of advance fighter aircraft, the F-22 is relatively safe to fly. This doesn’t mean that problems shouldn’t be addressed, or that the pilots were wrong to blow the whistle, or that the USAF pursued an appropriate level of caution, etc. It just means we’re (appropriately) less tolerant of failure in extraordinarily advanced and complex military hardware than we were forty years ago. ¬†Hell, the B-58 Hustler suffered a loss rate of 22.4% without ever seeing combat.

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