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MORE THAN ONE BRAIN TO FLY THE PLANE: A T-38 Talon crash landed at Ellington Field, Texas, Feb. 11. Investigators said a “culture of risk tolerance” in the flying squadron helped lead to the mishap, which ended up costing $2.1 million. (Photo by TSgt Samuel Bendet)

MORE THAN ONE BRAIN TO FLY THE PLANE: A T-38 Talon crash landed at Ellington Field, Texas, Feb. 11. Investigators said a “culture of risk tolerance” in the flying squadron helped lead to the mishap, which ended up costing $2.1 million. (Photo by TSgt Samuel Bendet)

AIR EDUCATION AND TRAINING COMMAND -- In our September/October 2011 edition of Torch, we printed an article on a T-38 Talon mishap in which a fatigued pilot made some errors that led to a costly crash landing. But what concerned me most about what investigators discovered while putting together their accident report was a "culture of risk tolerance" they cited in the pilot's squadron.

Investigators said, "Inappropriate supervisory policy, combined with inadequate operational risk management, led to the mishap pilot flying a high-risk mission profile. ... This mishap was caused by the authorization and execution of a mission having an unnecessarily high level of risk relative to the real benefits."

How does something like this happen? It takes more than one person letting their guard down, making poor decisions or simply looking the other way.

While flying squadrons usually have an assigned flight safety officer, really every person and office within the squadron is a flight safety officer. I know it is cliché, but let me explain.

SQUADRON COMMANDERS: They are the primary enforcers of safety. Their attitude and approach to safety permeates all squadron activities. If they play fast and loose with the rules, so does everyone else. If they look the other way, so will everyone else. If they demand strict adherence to Air Force Instructions and apply sound operational risk management, they set the standard for their personnel. They must recognize ineffective and unsafe behavior and act to change that behavior, even when it is unpopular
to do so.

FLIGHT COMMANDERS: They should know their people -- their limitations, qualifications, experience level, currency and any personal issues that may significantly impact their performance. All these factors should be reflected in the daily and weekly flying schedule, as well as the deployment cycle planning.

TRAINING FLIGHTS: These flights or offices are responsible for translating training requirements outlined in Air Force Instruction 11-2X, Volume 1 into local training plans. Costs, risks and benefits are analyzed and weighed at the higher headquarters level, and it is up to the training office to implement and document a coherent program with assets available at the unit level; i.e. academics, simulators, aircraft sorties, exercises, etc. After qualifications are attained, they have to be maintained and tracked. This can be a tedious task and usually has to be tailored to individual crewmembers based on their skill level in a variety of tasks. All of the training events have one goal in mind: proficient aircrews able to accomplish their mission safely. If aircrews are not proficient, they are probably not safe.

STANDARDIZATION AND EVALUATION FLIGHTS: These evaluators are enforcers of performance standards and, by extension, safety. AFI 11-2X, Volume 2 dictates proficiency levels for various maneuvers. Those proficiency levels are determined by higher headquarters and based on mission requirements and safety of flight. If aircrew members do not perform to standards on a check ride, they fail and get sent back to their flight commander and training flight for remedial training then reevaluation. This process results in a more proficient and thus safer aircrew member.

INTEL, WEAPONS AND TACTICS: These disciplines are inter-related. Squadron intel specialists are well-versed in the type of missions these aircrews will fly. They brief targets, threats, special instructions, rules of engagement, and SERE (survival evasion resistance escape) considerations, among other things. You have to know this stuff to be safe and effective. The weapons and tactics officer will take over and teach/brief how to employ the aircraft to counter these threats, stay safe and execute the mission.

SCHEDULING: The mission, whether training or operational, does not happen without being scheduled. This is another tedious task that takes into account mission requirements, aircrew availability to include duty day/crew rest, aircrew qualifications, aircraft availability, weather attrition, day/night windows, higher headquarter taskings, etc. The process puts qualified and current aircrew in mission-capable aircraft to get the mission done in a safe, efficient and effective manner.

: These managers develop products that flight commanders and schedulers use to start the scheduling process to begin with: qualifications, currencies, semi-annual training requirements, etc. Along with the operations officer, they review the proposed schedule the day prior, ensuring aircrew are qualified to fly their assigned/scheduled mission. They also ensure aircrew are up to date on flight crew information files, safety read files and boldface, etc. Most of the data squadron aviation resource managers process has to do with safety.

OPERATIONS SUPERVISION: The operations supervisor is basically the squadron commander's real time representative during flying operations. Their primary job is safe execution of the mission, which at this stage of the game is really the schedule. Their job is bit more holistic than others; they track weather, maintenance issues, traffic flow, patterns, operations, the military operating area, range considerations, target status, emergencies, etc. If all goes as scheduled, their job is easy; but flying is a dynamic enterprise with variables that often require an experienced aviator to weigh-in, set right and ensure safety.

LIFE SUPPORT: They ensure aircrew egress, survival equipment and training is adequate and up to date. This is serious business when you consider the fact that when aircrews use this equipment and training for real, it's their only means of survival!

FLIGHT SAFETY OFFICER: So what's left for a flight safety officer to do? ... Ideally, nothing. Everything a flying squadron does should be aimed at safe, efficient and effective flying operations. If the squadron flights and offices perform their jobs, they are essentially working as flight safety officers. But things don't always go as planned, and that is where the squadron FSO can help the commander find and fill in the gaps.

The bottom line is everyone in a flying squadron is a flight safety officer, and any one person in that chain can be the difference between a successful flight and a disastrous one.