Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is demanding answers from the Air Force after the department nixed funding for a program that helps helicopter pilots avoid midair obstacles that was put in place after a 2018 crash in Iraq killed seven service members, including three based on Long Island.
The Air Force's 2022 budget request to Congress eliminated funding for the Degraded Visual Environment program, which equips rescue helicopters with sensors that help pilots navigate through dust, snow, clouds of smoke and hard-to-see electrical wires.
The program was put in place after an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard crashed in March 2018 near the Iraq-Syria border after it struck a steel cable.
All seven service members onboard were killed, included two members of the FDNY — Christopher Raguso of Commack and Christopher "Tripp" Zanetis of Long Island City — and Dashan Briggs of Port Jefferson Station, a former All Division football star at Riverhead High School. All three were stationed at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton.
Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall last week asking him to put the brakes on the program's cancellation until Congress investigates the decision and determines how the department plans to redeploy the funding.
"I am urging the Air Force to consider the lessons learned and the need that still exists before making any rash decisions on limiting [Degraded Visual Environment] solutions installation," Schumer told Newsday in a statement Friday. "Even the Air Force has previously said that this equipment would ‘greatly minimize hazards of DVE operations, prevent mishaps, and fatalities.’ We need to do all we can to give the brave men and women who serve the latest and safest technology."
Air Force officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Schumer's letter.
At a June 30 hearing of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, department officials said the decision to abandon DVE was made because of an accelerated internal time frame for replacing the HH-60G copter with a newer model.
Maj. Gen. Richard Moore, director of programs for the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for plans and programs, said installing the DVE on an aircraft that will soon be retired from service "just did not appear to be a good use of taxpayer dollars. It doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the system, and it doesn’t mean that it’s not very productive for the pilots and very helpful for them. It just didn’t make sense in the particular case for this particular aircraft."
But Moore said eliminating the system will not put pilots at risk.
"I don't know that it's a requirement for a safe aircraft," he said. "It's an enhancement to the aircraft. It does improve safety. But we don't believe it's a safety of flight issue to not have it on the aircraft."
But in his letter, Schumer questioned whether the Air Force was creating an "unnecessary and unacceptable" risk by canceling the program.
"Servicemembers across the country who have dedicated their lives to take on the most dangerous and skilled rescue missions with these aircraft deserve the best equipment and resources to do their job," said Schumer, who wants assurances that the Air Force will purchase a similar system for its new combat rescue helicopter.