Staggering losses of U.S. Navy & Marine men & planes in 1954. True? Why?

On August 10 the *New York Times *published a story ( ) about China’s progress in launching its first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Soviet-build vessel. The story contained this eye-opening statement intended to point up just how dangerous the aircraft carrier business can be:

*“In a blog entry posted on Tuesday, an expert on the Chinese military, Andrew S. Erickson, cited Pentagon figures showing that the United States Navy and Marines together lost nearly 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 crew members from 1949 to 1988, including 776 planes and 535 crew members in 1954 alone.”*Are these figures accurate? And if so, what the heck was going on in 1954!?!? I did the math and 1954 was twice as deadly as the average year in that 1949 to 1988 time period.

Thanks all, in advance.

maybe what it means is a lot of WW2 vintage planes were retired to the mojave desert while that many crewmen were discharged.

Korean War coming to an end?

The Navy had around 50 Casablanca class escort carriers at the end of WWII. With no major conflicts on the horizon and jets coming ubiquitous, these vessels were obsolete and were mostly mothballed or scrapped during the 50s.

Sometime around there, jets came into the picture, and so did catapult launches and harder arrested landings than there were with prop planes and WWII style carriers (heavier planes).

I suspect that, along with the advent of the angled flight deck around that same time meant that there was a certain learning curve to overcome right around there.

The Navy used jets during the Korean War. But I suspect and agree that losses (I assume ‘losses’ rather than retirement) have to do with the changing nature of Naval Aviation at that time.

Sadly, it seems that’s not the case.

From Six Amazing Years Naval War College Review, Summer 2011

It seems the switch to jets, unsafe training practices, and maintenance and personnel assignment practices created during wartime created a huge accident rate that was unacceptable in peacetime and the Navy and Marines substantially changed practices in the late 1950s and early 1960s to address this problem.

This was touched on in The Right Stuff. Jets were paid for in blood. A lot of very good test pilots gave their lives perfecting the design of jets. IIRC they were losing several test pilots a month.

Planes lost their stability as they approached the sound barrier. Some of out best pilots died before Chuck Yeager finally succeeded.

I remember reading an article that Tom Wolfe wrote before he wrote The Right Stuff where stated that a Naval fight pilot had a 1 in 4 chance of being of being killed without seeing combat. I imagine it was worse back in the fifties.

I checked and the article was “The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie”.
It also mentioned the odds on ejecting as one in two. I would translate that into loosing a lot of planes.

It’s a long time since I read it but as I remember *The Right Stuff *the point was that sitting in a Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket was only incrementally more dangerous than the lives the astronauts had been leading their whole careers - initial training, fast jets, carrier landings, testing new planes, and then the X15 and its like all took there toll.

The bit I remember is the bit about the wives dreading the men in coats knocking on the door to break the news of their husband’s death and the unspoken rules as the other wives rallied round. I also remember the matter of fact way the pilots talked about another colleague “augering in”.

Tactical aviation has come a long way in terms of safety. USAF & USN used to kill a lot of people. Today the USN still has the higher mishap rate, but because they’re smaller than the USAF it’s more or less a tie on who loses the most people & aircraft to non-combat causes.

The OP’s straight line average is absolutely not the way to analyze this.

I tried to locate historical DoD mishap statistics online & didn’t have much luck. I did find this quality-sounding message board post which quotes some offline sources:

The punch line there being that the USAF destroyed 2200 aircraft in 1955 & 70 in 1999. The USAF had shrunk by (WAG) ~50% over that interval, so the actual reduction in accident rate is more like 10 or 15 to one rather than 30 to one. But a 10 to one reduction is still real impressive.

Why the change?

Better training, more reliable aircraft, and an institutional attitude that near-zero non-combat losses are the only acceptable way to operate.
FYI - if anyone wants to do more Googling: In DoD parlance, there are no “accidents”. They are “mishaps”. Have been since the olden days.

See the October 2011 issue of Naval History magazine for an interesting interview with Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence, USN, who was a jet test pilot in the Fifties. He was the first aviator to fly a Navy aircraft at more than Mach 2. He praises The Right Stuff and says, “In order to be a good military pilot, jet pilot, I think you have to be very much of an optimist,” given the odds against them. He made it a point to write his will and get his affairs in order before becoming a test pilot.

The Navy developed a half-dozen new jet aircraft in the Fifties; by contrast, he said, the F/A-18 Hornet has been the sole new Navy jet since 1980.


There’s a new book on the Navy’s difficult but successful effort to reduce fatalities among jet aircrews in the Fifties:

There’s also the fact a lot of the first generation carrier jet fighters were simply not good. A lot of problems with engines that were underpowered or very susceptible to flame-outs at the worst opportunity. There’s a reason why you don’t really see American carrier jet aircraft held in high regard until the F-4 Phantom.

For another eye-popping statistic, the US military annually was losing more soldiers in peace time in accidents in the 1980s than the US military was losing from all causes annually during our two ongoing wars in the 2000s.