• Published
  • By Lt. Col. EDWARD LINCH
  • 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern
In the pursuit of understanding fighter pilots, the study of human factors in aviation has evolved and grown. But, one constant remains: The majority of flight mishaps are still caused by human factors. In other words, jets crash more often than not because the pilot just screwed up or let his guard down.

"Helmet fires" (otherwise known as task saturation, mis-prioritization, situational awareness and channelized attention) can get the best of us, resulting in mishaps. As a matter of fact, task mis-prioritization, situational awareness and risk assessment/decision making are the three most frequently cited causes of Air Force fighter mishaps.

Modern day mishap statistics indicate 70 to 80 percent of aviation mishaps are caused by human factors. Throughout aviation history, even though we have dramatically reduced mishaps overall, the human factor rate has remained fairly constant. For example, a 1943 pilot information file states, "Pilot error is the cause of 70 to 80 percent of all aircraft accidents." Sound familiar?

Solomon was right when he wrote in Ecclesiastes, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."

Fighter pilots, specifically single seat pilots, face some of the most challenging flight environments. We have to organize our own resources plus work as a team to accomplish the mission while preparing for such immediate contingencies as weather, threats, in-flight emergencies and alternate missions, to name a few. Most of the time, these unexpected and unanticipated contingencies can only be overcome by skill, experience and/or training.

Nevertheless, skill-based errors (i.e., inadvertent ops, checklist errors, procedural errors, over/under control, inadequate anti-G straining maneuver) overwhelmingly comprise the greatest number of pilot errors as the root cause of most fighter mishaps. Most safety programs don't address how to fix skilled-based errors. The bottom line is the pilot has to fix the problem because the pilot, not the safety system, is most likely the problem.

Putting out helmet fires involves staying ahead of the jet through preparation and anticipation; that is, preparing for the worst case and anticipating the next event in the chain. Anticipation is forecasting using your best judgment -- a byproduct of experience. It's thinking ahead.

Techniques on how to manage helmet fires vary, but there are some proven concepts that have helped me survive almost 3,000 hours in fighters (see "Save Your Jet and Yourself" on the next page). Maybe these concepts and techniques can help you get your act together and help us reduce the skilled-based errors that are destroying our fighter force.